Aid agencies sign onto global plan to supply clean energy to refugees

Access to electricity is a lifeline for displaced persons enabling them to set up businesses and experience a degree of normalcy. A new plan aims to have clean energy in wide use in refugee camps by 2030, reducing costs, and improving quality of life.

Elena Boffetta/AP/File
Syrian refugees walk near the Azraq Refugee Camp where the United Nations refugee agency inaugurated a solar power plant, in Jordan’s northern desert on May 17, 2017. Aid agencies and governments around the world are planning to provide displaced families with access to clean energy by 2030.

Aid agencies and governments are transforming the way they provide energy to families forced to flee their homes around the world – from setting up solar power plants at camps for Syrians in Jordan, to funding a small solar panel for a Malian refugee to run a fridge for her water shop in Burkina Faso.

Energy has always been needed in the camps and informal settlements home to tens of millions of people uprooted by conflicts or natural disasters.

But it has largely been in the form of polluting diesel generators, fossil fuels for trucks to move relief supplies, or locally harvested firewood for cooking.

That is changing, with United Nations agencies, aid groups, major refugee-hosting countries, and businesses preparing in July to sign up to a global action plan to provide all displaced people with access to sustainable energy by 2030, in line with UN development goals.

"People are beginning to realize that this is an important issue, and something that deserves priority, resources and attention," said Owen Grafham from the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), a partnership managed by London-based think tank Chatham House, which is working on the action plan.

In camps, about 90 percent of people lack electricity, while 80 percent rely on firewood and other solid fuels to cook, which are harmful to their health and local forests, according to MEI.

Electric power has not been regarded as a human "right" in emergency situations, unlike shelter, water, food, or health care, said Andrew Harper of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

"Energy is really not something that is fully taken into account," he said. But it is "the key to empowering refugees and displaced persons," added the UNHCR's director of program support and former representative in Jordan.

In 2012 when Jordan's Za'atari camp opened – home at one point to as many as 130,000 Syrian refugees – Friday prayers would be followed by "a riot," with frustrated, anxious residents destroying things and throwing stones, Mr. Harper said.

But once UNHCR began spending up to $450,000 each month on electricity supplied to the camp via a grid connection, refugees used it to set up some 3,000 shops and businesses, and the rampages stopped as their sense of dignity grew, he said.

"They started feeling possessive, protective, engaged in the stability of the camp," he added.

Since last year, two of Jordan's main refugee camps have used power produced by their own solar plants – one in Za'atari funded by German development bank KfW and the other in Azraq backed by the IKEA Foundation – that can also feed back surplus electricity into the national grid.

Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen, head of humanitarian energy at Britain-based charity Practical Action, said Jordan's government takes the wider view that getting camps connected will improve the country's infrastructure and support national development.

"They see it as an opportunity, and as a way to change perceptions in host communities that this is good for both of us – not just for refugees," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Energy for all

Practical Action is embarking on a project in the north Jordan city of Irbid, also funded by the IKEA Foundation, that will assist landlords renting properties to vulnerable refugee families to install rooftop solar systems for heating water.

The development charity will also work with UNHCR and other partners in Rwanda to set up solar micro-grids and home systems to power schools, clinics, street lighting and home appliances in three camps hosting Congolese refugees, offering an alternative to candles and kerosene.

It will also look at ways to provide more sustainable fuel and efficient stoves for cooking.

Government officials and others at a meeting on Wednesday in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, about the "Renewable Energy for Refugees" project emphasized the need to move away from the environmentally harmful use of firewood, co-host MEI said.

Energy underpins many things displaced people need to do in their daily lives, said Ms. Rosenberg-Jansen – from charging mobile phones used to contact relatives and transfer money, to washing clothes, lighting, entertainment, and moving around.

But the answer is not to distribute energy for free, she added. "There is already a market there [in camps]," with households spending a relatively high proportion of their disposable income on energy, she noted.

Handouts risk destroying that market, and making people worse off by giving them products they do not want, she said.

The challenge is to supply cleaner power and cooking methods for a lower price, Rosenberg-Jansen and other experts said.

Cost savings 

The forthcoming global action plan will include targets and concrete ways of reaching them, those drafting it said.

Practical Action's Rosenberg-Jansen hopes that in five years, aid workers will factor in the provision of clean energy from the outset of an emergency and include it in funding plans.

Doing so would also bring significant cost savings for agencies that spend millions of dollars each year on power from unreliable diesel generators that often break down, cutting off the health clinics and other services they run, she added.

UNHCR's Harper said aid organizations needed to collaborate with business, governments, and development banks to overcome barriers to building and operating clean energy services for refugees and displaced people. Problems include high upfront costs, onerous bureaucracy, and restrictive regulations.

In Za'atari, for example, UNHCR found refugees were willing to buy electricity but the agency had no mechanism to receive payment.

A new partnership called the Smart Communities Coalition, co-chaired by credit card giant Mastercard and the United States government's "Power Africa" program, will attempt to resolve such issues by putting in place digital infrastructure in refugee camps and settlements, starting later this year in Kenya and Uganda.

The aim is for governments, aid agencies, and companies to develop a model to provide refugees with internet and mobile connectivity, digital financial tools, and access to low-cost clean energy. That will require fresh thinking on all sides, said Tara Nathan, who leads on public-private partnerships for Mastercard, which will offer its expertise in digital payments.

"The money, the capacities exist – it's about... finding a way for everyone to act like grown-ups and intervene together," she said on the sidelines of a conference on energy access in Lisbon this month.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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