Millions of refugees and displaced people have lived for years without affordable, clean energy. Now coronavirus has increased the danger faced by families around the world. The solutions to this challenge exist. But meaningful change will need a shift in attitudes, alongside long-term investment.
A meal cooked without toxic fumes. Light to study or use the bathroom at night. The chance to call loved ones. These everyday things are out of the reach for many of those forced to flee their homes.
Chatham House report that about 80% of people in refugee camps are thought to have minimal access to energy for cooking and heating, and about 90% have no access to electricity. Even limited access to energy comes at an enormous cost. In the Dadaab camps in Kenya, households spend an estimated 24% of their income on energy – compared to a UK household spend of just 4%.
This problem is set to grow as donor budgets – and refugees themselves – are threatened by coronavirus. Funding from aid agencies is more stretched than ever, and more refugees are struggling to pay for simple items like solar lanterns.
This is particularly cruel as clean energy is vital for helping refugees survive the virus and stop its spread. Most obviously, it is essential for ventilators, sterilisers, vaccine fridges and other health equipment – already in short supply among refugee communities.
But it is also needed to pump water for sanitation, and to power communication through radios, mobile phones and other channels. Digital communication boosts public health messages and limits the need for large physical gatherings that could further spread virus.
Finally, affordable clean energy limits the need for polluting cookstoves and open cooking fires. Exposure to air pollution raises the risk of dying from respiratory viruses.
Empowering solutions can bring long-term change
Today’s extraordinary challenges have not arrived from nowhere. They reflect the long-term marginalisation of refugees and displaced people. While immediate action is needed, this crisis should also spark a greater focus on long-term climate solutions that deliver social, political and economic empowerment.
Significant change will only come with a new kind of solution – sustainably financed initiatives that give displaced people and their neighbours control in the design and running of their energy supply. Such solutions already exist, often bringing refugees jobs and skills, better health, and greater equality alongside clean energy.
In Jordan – host to millions of Syrian refugees – an initiative by the Norwegian Refugee Council has tackled energy access challenges alongside a host of other issues, from education to poverty. Its achievements including bringing solar energy to 14 schools, training 115 young people with skills to take up jobs linked to renewable energy, and incentivising private landlords to install solar-water heaters in 572 homes occupied by refugee families.
In Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp, local entrepreneurs are trialling using pay-as-you-go technology to make clean energy affordable to more customers.
And in conflict-hit Yemen, community owned-and-run microgrids have brought clean energy and vital incomes to those affected by war, and offered a radical new role for women in a country marked by gender inequality.
The microgrid project was created by the United Nations Development Programme, which provided guidance and an initial grant. But now the grids are self-sustaining businesses, bringing incomes and clean energy to displaced people and host communities.
The path forward
This creation of shared benefits is crucial to successful schemes, serving to integrate refugees with the rest of society – and so tackling one of the root causes of refugee marginalisation. But integration and co-operation are essential well beyond communities themselves. Governments, funders, NGOs and businesses must come together in new networks built around the needs and aspirations of displaced people.
We see signs of progress, including action from key players in the refugee sector. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has greatly and vocally stepped up its ambition in the last year.
Through its Clean Energy Challenge, the organisation has pledged “new clean energy projects will be designed in consultation with refugees and relevant national planning authorities, integrating nearby host communities into proposals.”
It’s vital that UNHCR and other powerful bodies embrace this approach, as the first step towards a fair deal for refugees.
Ellen Dobbs is programme manager at climate solutions charity Ashden, focusing on energy access and climate justice