Facing dwindling funds and a humanitarian disaster stretching into its sixth year, the United Nations and Syrian refugees reached for the sun.
In Jordan, the UN and its partners have hooked up the first solar-powered refugee camps in the world – a test as to whether the international aid community can step beyond the emergency relief approach and provide sustainable solutions that benefit refugees, host communities, and the environment long after each crisis ends.
Jordan, which imports 98 percent of its energy needs, has struggled to manage the cost of the country’s 1.3 million Syrian refugees. The Zaatari camp, established in 2012 at the edge of Jordan’s northern desert, a few miles from the Syrian border, houses 80,000 Syrian refugees and has become Jordan’s fourth biggest population center; Azraq, home to 32,000 refugees, is in the middle of the country’s eastern desert.
Zaatari residents took UN-supplied power from camp street lamps, causing constant shortages in the camp and the surrounding area, and forcing the UN to cut electricity to eight hours a day; Azraq remained without electricity.
With funds for Syrian refugees drying up as donors shift their focus to new humanitarian crises, the UN looked for a way to ease the financial burden of maintaining the camps until it saw the light: solar.
In May, the Azraq camp became the first solar-powered refugee camp in the world, with a 2.5 megawatt photovoltaic plant funded by the IKEA Foundation providing electricity to 20,000 refugees for the very first time. The UN is currently working on a project to expand the plant’s capacity to provide electricity to the entire camp by the end of the year.
In November, Zaatari followed suit, with a 12.9 megawatt solar farm funded by the German government providing 14 hours of electricity per day to more than 80,000 Syrian refugees.
Back to the future
For the refugees themselves, the solar power is literally giving them a new lease on life.
Since Azraq’s establishment in 2014, families in the camp had been unable to refrigerate food, turn on lights after sunset, charge their mobile phones, or run a simple electric fan during sweltering summer days. In Zaatari, electricity had been limited to 8 hours a night and often was cut due to power outages caused by overuse; most families could barely get enough electricity to charge their phones.
Now, children can do their homework at night, and residents can move about the camp freely in the evenings. Families can stay inside their shelters during dust storms, cooled by electric fans. A trip to the bathroom in the evening is no longer a perilous journey into the dark desert night.
“We used to splash water on our faces to keep ourselves cool – we would be in a daze during the day and fall asleep at sunset,” says Ahmed Mohammed, a 25-year-old Azraq camp resident from Daraa, Syria.
“Our lives would just stop.”
“We didn’t know what a power outage was until we came to Jordan,” says Mohammed Ahmed, a 49-year-old Zaatari resident from the southern Syrian town of Tafas.
“Thanks to solar energy, we now feel like we have rejoined the 21st century.”
Freed up funds
The introduction of solar is saving scarce resources for the UN in Jordan, which was paying up to $10 million per year for electricity. The solar plant in Zaatari will save the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) $5.5 million annually, and the Azraq plant $1.5 million, funds that will now go back into other lifesaving services for the 650,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN – 78 percent of whom live outside the camps – and the 75,000 non-Syrian refugees in Jordan.
With the UN estimating that the average refugee crisis worldwide now lasts 17 years, the agency was looking for ways to provide sustainable solutions that would last after donor interest has died down and international attention has shifted to the latest crises and disasters. With the power plants, the Zaatari and Azraq camps have their electricity ensured for the next 20 years.
“By nature of the humanitarian system, refugees become dependent on outside support,” says Stefano Severe, UNHCR representative in Jordan.
“We need to find ways to make this support sustainable and independent, and solar energy is a major step in that direction.”
Only 11 percent of the 8.7 million refugees and displaced living in formal camps worldwide had access to reliable energy source as of 2015; 7 million refugees and displaced had access to less than 4 hours of electricity per day, according to a 2015 report by the Chatham House, a UK-based think tank."
The vast majority of refugees are forced to rely on firewood, coal, and liquid gas for cooking, heating, and light, often at their own expense – and paying well over the market price.
“There are ongoing discussions on how to use this as a model, and there are many camps that could benefit,” Mr. Severe says.
The UNHCR admits that a critical requirement for refugee camps to go green is the private sector.
The Zaatari camp solar farm cost $17.7 million, while the Azraq power plant cost $9.6 million. Moving from one budget shortfall to another, the UNHCR and other UN agencies can barely sustain their activities, let alone put up the up-front investment required in such renewable energy projects.
As of September, the agency was facing a $113.8 million funding gap for its 2017 operations in Jordan, struggling to raise funds for 40 percent of its $277.2 million budget.
“Basically, the humanitarian system finds it difficult to fund this type of project,” says Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow at Chatham House who has researched renewable energy solutions to refugee crises.
“Their budgets run for a year, and they cannot justify investments in capital costs that pay off more than a year later,” says Ms. Lahn. “They cannot look at the payback. That is the real problem.”
When UNHCR decided to establish the plant in Azraq, it found immediate interest from the IKEA Foundation, the charitable arm of the Swedish furniture giant, and its Brighter Lives for Refugees Campaign.
When the UN agency looked to cut its costs in Zaatari, it approached the German government and the KfW, the German development bank, which finances environment conservation, solar energy, and international development projects. In Jordan, the KfW saw a unique opportunity to promote all three while aiding a host country under an increasing strain.
“Safe and continuous electricity supply is a basic need for refugee populations,” Dr. Joachim Nagel, member of the KfW Executive Board, said on the sidelines of the inauguration of the Zaatari plant in November.
“While there is a need for emergency response, there is also a need for long-term solutions to refugee populations that is not dependent on the donor community.”
Jobs for the future
The power plants have a lasting impact on Syrian refugees. The construction of the solar plants has employed more than 125 refugees, many of whom are staying on as full-time staff managing and maintaining the power stations.
Qasim Thiab was an electrician in his hometown of Daraa, before he fled to Jordan in 2013 with his young family.
After a year of doing odd-jobs outside Zaatari, the 31-year-old was selected to help run the plant due to his technical skills. For months, Thiab learned net-metering, how to operate switchgear for solar plants, and how to maximize power conversion efficiency of solar cells.
Now Thiab helps manage the Zaatari solar power plant, earning a monthly salary with health insurance for him and his family. He hopes to share his new skills in renewable energy once he returns to Syria, providing solar solutions for the country’s eventual reconstruction.
“There is no infrastructure left in Syria; no power-lines, no grid, no fuel refineries or power plants,” says Thiab, walking through rows of solar panels in the Zaatari desert on a break between shifts.
“Renewable energy is the future and the entire world is moving in this direction. When we rebuild our country, we should take part in this future.”
The projects also go far in helping the environment in the host country, Jordan. The Zaatari plant will cut carbon dioxide emissions from the camp by 13,000 tons per year – the equivalent to 30,000 barrels of oil – while the plant in Azraq brings a CO2 emissions savings of 2,370 tons.
Meanwhile, the UN is looking to take its solar projects one step further.
UNHCR Jordan is currently looking at firms interested in providing solutions for energy storage and electricity generation on-site at the Azraq camp, which is facing a net-metering limit due to the capacities of the grid in the Eastern Jordanian desert. The additions would make Azraq a solar power plant fully independent of the national grid.
In the meantime, Thiab says he and his colleagues are already planning ways to adapt the technology they are using in Zaatari to green projects in Syria, such as solar-powered farms, factories, and dairies. For him, and many others, it is a silver lining in a crisis that has given few reasons to celebrate.
“If a refugee camp can go solar, anything can,” Thiab says.