Joining Up the Dots: Energy and Infrastructure for Countries in Crisis

Could a refugee crisis help the host-country improve its health and development outcomes? The ‘energy and infrastructure’ focus at this week’s first UN Global Refugee Forum suggests it could, where national policy enables it.

Expert comment Published 16 December 2019 Updated 18 December 2019 3 minute READ

A man serves customers at a shop in Nyahbiheke Refugee Camp, Rwanda. Energy access makes it possible for refugees to power and run businesses. Photo: Practical Action.

A man serves customers at a shop in Nyahbiheke Refugee Camp, Rwanda. Energy access makes it possible for refugees to power and run businesses. Photo: Practical Action.

Mass human displacement crises like those in Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar do not dissipate within a year or two. The average age of a refugee camp globally is 18 and counting.

Meanwhile, the pressures on resources and services in neighbouring countries absorbing an influx of vulnerable people can be harsh. Imagine the overstressed schools and hospitals where intake has doubled in areas of Jordan and Lebanon, and the damage to ecosystems and elephant habitats where camps have sprung up in Bangladesh.

The fallout from such crises is prompting new ways of working in the international humanitarian system. These recognize that short-term, emergency responses can jeopardize national development goals if maintained indefinitely. In most refugee camps for instance, each family cooks with wood in regions already suffering from deforestation.

Reliance on polluting trucks to bring in fuel and water is high. At the same time, developing countries – which host 80 per cent of the record 70.8 million people currently displaced by conflict – desperately need to address health, water, energy and housing needs for their own populations. Aid and welfare interventions directed only at refugees can provoke frustrations amongst the local community, damaging social cohesion and fostering political instability.

The Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the United Nations General Assembly one year ago, aims at fairer responsibility-sharing amongst countries and equitable resourcing to host communities and refugees. The Global Refugee Forum (GRF) taking place 17–18 December in Geneva is the starting point for donor pledges and commitments.

An opportunity for refugee-hosting countries

Among the GRF’s 6 focus themes is ‘Energy and Infrastructure’ – a new priority for humanitarian aid and finance. This covers energy, environment, water and sanitation, health, shelter and connectivity – services that are tightly interconnected. In October, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also launched its first energy strategy, which ‘promotes the transition to clean, renewable energy at refugee camps and hosting sites’.

Given this impetus, alongside a growing international focus on speeding up Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) delivery, stabilizing migration and supporting climate resilience, more aid and soft credit for interlinked objectives will become available. Countries hosting refugees have an opportunity; how they approach it will determine the level of support they attract and how effectively it is deployed.

Policy conditions are key to success

In a refugee situation, energy access is about much more than keeping warm or cooking food. It is also about connecting with loved ones across borders, safety at night, healthy births and making a living. Due to the lack of long-term funding, maintenance systems or government approvals, failed pilots to introduce for example, solar streetlighting or clean cookstoves, are the norm.

To increase their durability and reach, projects need to harness local markets and support national development goals, especially those on access to modern energy for all (SDG 7), protecting ecosystems (SDG 15) and resilient human settlements (SDG 11). Several examples of these are emerging, each with valuable lessons to share.

The policy environment, in particular, coordination between authorities, humanitarian agencies and private sector actors, can make or break a project. Beyond the basic conditions of adequate security and refugee acceptance, our research highlights three enabling factors:

First: government willingness to engage in long-term response and resilience coordination. Jordan is the most advanced in this with its three-year rolling Response Plan for the Syria Crisis whereby the government works with humanitarian agencies to integrate refugee welfare with national development needs.

Here, energy, water and housing needs are specified and have attracted funding. For example, in Irbid, Jordan where over 137,600 Syrian refugees live, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is expanding a programme under the Renewable Energy for Refugees (RE4R) initiative that applies energy efficiency and solar water heating to reduce bills and rents for refugee tenants while adding value for Jordanian homeowners.

Second: strong, clear, energy and environment plans and legislation. Signals can be mixed. Jordan’s ‘wheeling’ regulation, allowed UNHCR to reduce its electricity bills through specially built solar plants at Azraq and Zaatari, yet the current freeze on renewable connections has stifled further projects.

In Rwanda, the government banned the supply of woodfuel to refugee camps on the basis of concerns about deforestation. The announcement sharpens focus on cleaner cooking.

Yet with little guidance on enforcement and the timeframe for change, it is difficult for UNHCR and its partners to plan viable schemes. A reversion to stove and fuel handouts is likely, damaging the potential to create markets for alternative cooking practices in the camps.

Third: local fuel prices. Where polluting fuels are subsidized or untaxed, additional subsidy is needed to make cleaner alternatives competitive. The higher prices of diesel in Uganda for example are an incentive for solar projects at Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee settlement.

The Gaia Association-UNHCR clean energy programme in Ethiopia’s Western refugee camps has avoided burning some 10,000 tonnes of wood since 2006 through ethanol, but if VAT (which is applied to neither charcoal nor kerosene) were waived, it could scale up commercially.

Joining up the dots

Many humanitarian and government dots could be joined up in support of the SDGs. In Rwanda for example, clarity on electrification plans – which appear to cover refugee areas – could allow camp mini-grids to be designed for eventual grid integration. In Jordan, lessons learned from the home upgrading programme could be applied to meet city climate resilience ambitions.

Donors at the GRF should support humanitarian operations that leave a positive legacy, increasing the robustness of country infrastructure and systems. Host-country governments should help define and encourage projects that benefit national and refugee populations. This will be critical to both development outcomes and limiting future human suffering.