Energy for the most vulnerable remains a distant hope

Despite almost a decade of increased attention, delivering sustainable energy solutions for those forced to flee their homes is now further away than ever.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

Owen Grafham

Former Assistant Director, Environment and Society Centre

As international delegates gather in Kigali, Rwanda for the Sustainable Energy for All Forum, they are acutely aware the world remains dangerously off-track from meeting the ambition of SDG7 to deliver access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. But it is refugees and displaced people who are perhaps the most at risk of missing out.

With more than 750 million people still lacking access to electricity and more than 2.5 billion without clean cooking solutions, the forum seeks to drive faster action. But when analysing the progress of delivering energy access to displaced people, instead of seeing improvements, the world is moving further away.

Back in 2015, Chatham House estimated 89 per cent of forcibly displaced people in camps had no access to meaningful electricity supply for lighting, while 77 per cent were reliant on only the most basic fuels – primarily wood – for cooking.

Eight years on, and with more knowledge about the specifics of energy supply and usage in camps, the statistics have worsened, with 94 per cent of forcibly displaced people living in camps now estimated to not have meaningful access to power, and 81 per cent lacking anything other than the most basic fuels for cooking.

Poor access leads to harmful impact

The effects of such terrible figures are debilitating as both adults and children are forced into harmful coping strategies such as skipping meals or trading fuel for food, and having limited ability to work, learn, or play outside of daylight hours.

When analysing the progress of delivering energy access to displaced people, instead of seeing improvements, the world is moving further away

And yet, despite the worrying figures, stories of significant recent progress do exist. Rohingya refugees at the Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh are now overwhelmingly able to cook meals with gas rather than firewood, saving time, money, and their health, and transforming the local environment to the benefit of both refugees and host communities.

In three Rwandan camps, large-scale interventions brought additional light and power to 58 per cent of camp households, and improved cooking solutions to 33 per cent of households, facilitating the growth of local private sector enterprise and supporting refugee entrepreneurs.

Short video explainer outlining the energy issues facing those forced to flee their homes due to conflict, and how a lack of acccess impacts them.

And the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps in Jordan are connected to grid electricity enabled by solar farms specifically created to support refugees and host communities – these will be a legacy asset for Jordan beyond the lifetime of the refugee camps themselves.

There is also now a central coordination group – the Global Platform for Action (GPA) – housed within the United Nations (UN) system and supporting those working on this issue which has raised awareness and advocated tirelessly on behalf of displaced people.

Challenges around coordination, political will, long-term policy coherence, and access to finance continue to hamper greater deployment of known solutions

As a result, there is more money, interest, and energy being devoted to this issue than at any time in the past, with governments such as Norway, Germany, the UK, Sweden, and the UAE pledging funds. And significant private philanthropy has also driven progress, for example in Ethiopia where the IKEA Foundation has committed long-term funds and programming on energy issues.

And yet we are further away than ever in terms of the overall goal.

Numbers in need increasing too fast

A key problem is the progress has not been able to keep pace with increased levels of displaced people forced to flee their homes, as the overall number of people included in the Chatham House assessment has increased by 34 per cent since 2015.

In addition, understanding more about how displaced people use energy has led to a downgrading of the original estimates about levels of access in certain settings, such as Ethiopia and Sudan where previous analysis suggested a greater penetration of improved cooking solutions than more recent assessments now indicate.

Energy for the most vulnerable remains a distant hope 2nd part

Events happening now in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Sudan remind the world that refugee lives and livelihoods are tumultuous and uncertain. But the war in Ukraine has not only led to a historic number of refugees in Europe, it will also lead to a range of cascading problems in other parts of the world as rising food and energy prices trigger further instability.

Delivering heat, light, and power is so essential to refugees all over the world, and yet ongoing challenges around coordination, political will, long-term policy coherence, and access to finance continue to hamper greater deployment of known solutions.

The conference in Kigali represents one chance to put this problem on the map but it is clear there must be a redoubling of financing and efforts to ensure this growing group of people is not left behind.