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Heat, light and power for refugees: Saving lives, reducing costs

Publication date:
G. Lahn
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Displacement of people as a result of conflict is not a new phenomenon – but today it represents an unprecedented global challenge. The gap between the needs of growing numbers of displaced people and the resources and political will to meet their needs is widening. For example, voluntary contributions met less than half the $3.05 billion increase in the UNHCR’s funding requirement between 2009 and 2013.

Energy is one critical area which illustrates this problem but also offers potential for practical redress. Energy services are essential for basic human protection and dignity, two of the core ethical aims of humanitarian assistance. Energy services provide cooking, lighting, heating and clean water, and underpin all but the most rudimentary income-earning activities. Yet millions of displaced people lack access to clean, safe and secure energy services, in part because funding for such services is inadequate. The lack of reliable data on energy use in the humanitarian field shows that it is a neglected area. But the evidence amassed in the course of this project reveals a huge opportunity to provide better andmore sustainable energy services.

Drawing on open-source data, interviews and field surveys, this report offers the first global overview of the state of energy use among almost 60 million people forcibly displaced by conflict. It considers the mounting financial and human costs of their current methods of obtaining energy, and assesses the economic, environmental and human case for change.

Key findings
    Energy use by displaced people is economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. Children and women bear the greatest costs. In 2014 household energy use among forcibly displaced people amounted to around 3.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent at an estimated cost of $2.1 billion. This minimal energy use generates disproportionate emissions.
    Improving access to cleaner and more modern energy solutions would reduce costs, cut emissions and save lives. The widespread introduction of improved cookstoves and basic solar lanterns could save $323 million a year in fuel costs in return for a one-time capital investment of $335 million for the equipment.
    The barriers to a sustainable, healthier, more cost-effective system are not technological but institutional, operational and political.  There is a severe shortage of energy expertise in the humanitarian system and no systematic approach to planning for and managing energy provision. Political sensitivities in some cases prevent rational approaches.
    Doing things differently can bring significant benefits for host countries. Energy investments help integrate displaced populations and provide a legacy asset for local communities. They can also contribute to national and local sustainable development objectives.

Six imperatives for change
    Incorporate sustainable energy access for displaced people into international, national and agency agendas. Humanitarian agencies should incorporate energy considerations into core programming for each stage of a humanitarian response.
    Build the data. The humanitarian sector needs to collect and report disaggregated data on fuel use, energy practices and costs.
    Coordinate national ambitions and humanitarian aims for mutual benefit. Energy access and other resource sustainability challenges should be considered areas for cooperation between host countries, international donors and humanitarian agencies.
    Embed energy projects and accountability at the local level. The design of energy interventions must take into account the needs and capabilities of displaced and local communities and ensure that accountability for the performance of energy interventions lies with local providers and implementers.
    Explore new delivery models. Energy provision for displaced people needs to move away from a model based on handouts and requires an overhaul of current procurement practices and standards.
    Explore innovative funding models. Where possible, encourage the use of local markets to sustain and cultivate energy solutions, stress test mechanisms to allocate risks between public- and private-sector actors and consider linking large-scale camp energy infrastructure contracts to opportunities to expand services to nearby households.

The study draws on data from a variety of organizations, one being the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).