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Renewable energy solutions in refugee settings and situations of displacement

By Ayat El Dewary / 25/05/2019

Ramadan is always special. It is when families and communities come together; whether to share a meal, or to support those in need. We look back on the years before just as the month starts – it is that catalytic and the memories we hold are that dear. However, for millions of people, Ramadan has become a memory of what once was; busy dining rooms and laughter with loved ones who are sorely missed. A growing number of refugee and displaced families now observe Ramadan separated from those they love and their communities, far from their homes, yet showing insurmountable resilience. These families inspire us every minute and to them, we extend our warmest wishes not only for the Holy Month, but because their strength and courage move us all. 

The speed in which displacement is occurring is truly alarming. Thirty-one people are newly displaced every minute. That means that if you are reading this in a small office, all of your colleagues would be gone over and over again every minute.  With continuing crises across every corner of the globe, in Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen, the number of people who have been forced to flee stands at 68.5 million forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees who crossed an international border in search of safety. 
Yet amid this troubling backdrop, the international community has failed to bring conflicts to an end, leaving millions of men, women and children in exile for decades. It becomes prohibitively expensive for UNHCR to continue implementing emergency humanitarian measures for protracted periods of time. With refugees in exile for longer periods, it is no longer enough to provide short-term humanitarian relief. Rather, we have to think of longer term development models – including ensuring access to education, to livelihoods and employment, and to sustainable forms of energy. 

Access to energy, once considered a luxury but now a priority for basic survival, is another integral issue. 90% of refugees living in camps lack access to electricity and 80% rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking. Global issues such as food insecurity, environmental degradation, and climate change only exacerbate the situation further. Water scarcity is a growing problem in the face of climate change, especially in the dry seasons. Lack of access to water, a necessity for survival, results in detrimental effects to refugees and displaced persons’ health, safety and wellbeing. 

As part of UNHCR’s prioritization of the use of renewable energy within our comprehensive and sustainable response UNHCR installed solar plants at the refugee camps of Azraq and Zaatari in 2017 in Jordan. The plants transformed the lives of over 120,000 Syrian refugee families. The plants not only provided livelihood opportunities for some refugees working at the plant, but families are now able to power their shelters, run essential electrical appliances, recharge their phones, study and work after dark, and walk safely at night. Moreover, the Azraq plant has helped save around $2 million each year, while, the Zaatari plant is expected to decrease operational costs by US$5.5 million annually while reducing annual CO2 emissions from the camp by 13,000 tonnes. If anything, this has proved that renewable and sustainable energy solutions are sound investments both from a budgetary and an environmental perspective. 

Another challenge we face is location. The vast majority of refugees today are hosted in low and middle-income countries, which, often lack the proper infrastructure to support large numbers of displaced persons. In remote and off-grid locations, we rely on generator diesel fuel to power our installations. In many low-income countries, refugees and host communities compete for dwindling natural resources, leading to tensions and clashes. 

In Diffa region in Niger, UNHCR partnered with the Nigerien Government and the private sector to introduce liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to the region. While initial costs were high, as demand increased, LPG prices dropped well below the price of wood. Rather, former woodcutters and firewood collectors are receiving training in sustainable small-hold farming schemes. While in Rwanda, a remarkable project has led to the production of fuel-efficient stoves requiring 80% less wood to achieve the same performance. UNHCR has subsequently expanded these initiatives in Sahel countries, Tanzania, and, most recently, in Bangladesh.

It is clear that the status-quo is incredibly complex. We cannot do it alone. While the upsurge in humanitarian crises in recent years has brought in greater levels of funding for humanitarian organizations from foreign aid and private donations, this has not been sufficient to meet the needs of the 68.5 million men, women and children forced to flee their homes. UNHCR rarely receives more than 50% of its budgetary needs, which has a direct effect on the lives of people at need. 50% funding translates into 50% of projects, including energy, being implemented and thus affecting the quality of life of millions. The lack of funding is often times a matter of life or death.

For UNHCR alone, our estimated costs spent on generators and fuel are above USD 100 million per year. Chatham House says that the humanitarian sector as a whole spent about USD 1.2 billion dollars on diesel, petrol and associated generator costs in 2017. Some of our biggest expenses are spent on pumping water, temperature-controlled warehouses, medical and educational facilities, as well as refugee shelters and businesses, among others. Renewable energy solutions tackle this financial problem. 

There is no doubt that without light, heat, power and mobility self-reliance cannot be achieved. We have found that renewable energy systems present a unique opportunity for greater aid effectiveness, not only in providing affordable, safe and sustainable energy solutions, but also through spurring sustainable economic growth, generating development opportunities, and creating jobs within both refugee and host communities. This is very much in line with the New York Declaration, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and Global Compact on Refugees. We hope that this Ramadan would reinforce the human solidarity and empathy, and encourage people to give what they can to ensure that no one is left behind.

 

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