The world has 140 million people in need of humanitarian aid. More than 68 million of these have been displaced by conflict, a threefold rise in just over a decade, and these are usually prolonged crises. The humanitarian sector – a mix of United Nations, governmental and non-governmental, international and local actors – has grown in response. Yet emergency-relief priorities tend to trump sustainability concerns. The fact that 85% take refuge in developing countries that already confront resource insecurity demands new approaches addressing both. And energy is one place to begin.
At present, operations overwhelmingly rely on diesel for transport and electricity generation, and wood and charcoal for household cooking, which displaced people often buy or collect. Such practices outlast initial emergencies as refugee settlements grow into small cities and peacekeeping operations drag on for years with impacts on health, environment and safety. Host countries endure high costs and threats to social cohesion. For example, Bangladesh is experiencing rapid deforestation after hosting more than 600,000 refugees who fled Myanmar and use wood as a cooking fuel.
Globally, fewer than 40% of refugees and just 20% of internally displaced people live in camps. Most migrate to urban centers. In areas of mass migration such as Lebanon and Jordan, governments must handle additional demands for fuel subsidies, power grids and water. Two factors add pressure for action: First, the humanitarian system needs an efficiency upgrade as diesel dependence is far from economic. Second, refugee host countries seek to conserve resources. Jordan, for example, demands that the international response to the Syrian crisis also address energy and water stress. The Rwandan government wants an end to wood fuel distribution in camps.
The Moving Energy Initiative, a collaboration of several NGOs, UNHCR and the UK government’s development agency, revealed the extent of energy poverty among displaced people. The initiative highlighted opportunities for deployment of cost-competitive energy efficiency and renewability. SAFE Access to Fuel and Energy Working Group, comprised of many humanitarian and development actors, coordinates cleaner energy implementation.
Confronting growing numbers of displaced people, aid organizations must focus on sustainability.
Several areas offer potential for change; 1) response and resilience plans, designed to align aid with development needs in countries facing humanitarian crises; 2) rapid advances and cost reductions in alternative technologies including mobile payments and off-grid systems; 3) increasing interest from companies with the expertise to solve energy challenges; and 4) changes in humanitarian approaches including direct cash payments and work permits in host countries to discontinue treating refugees as passive recipients of aid.
New technologies could improve efficiency of aid, potentially reducing diesel use and electricity bills. Last year, Azraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan became the world’s first refugee settlements to benefit from specially constructed solar energy plants, saving UNHCR $7.5 million in electricity bills in 2019. Rural refugee settlements in Africa and Asia host solar water pumping pilot studies. Studies have examined the use of solar PV for core services and an emergency energy module for a camp on the Chad-Sudan border. Digitalization of fleet management, enabling agencies to pool transport vehicles, could save millions of dollars annually and improve safety.
A first-of-its kind conference on Energy for Displaced People was hosted by Germany in 2018 with UN and NGO partners. New data platforms including the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Humanitarian Data Exchange, the UN Environment Program’s MapX, and a joint data center of the World Bank and UNHCR analyze the humanitarian sector’s energy and the environmental impacts. At Davos, MasterCard and USAID’s Power Africa launched the Smart Communities Coalition, devising projects in Uganda and Kenya to improve service delivery, including energy access, for refugee camps and host communities.
International peace operations are typically located in countries with limited grid infrastructure and unreliable energy access – including Central African Republic, Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Thousands of international military, police and civilian personnel, deployed in remote locations, are major fuel consumers. Diesel fuel for lighting to communications costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The diesel sustaining international humanitarian and peace missions, sometimes a scarce commodity, is usually imported. Purchases may not play a neutral role in the conflict. For example, in South Sudan, among the least electrified nations in the world, the international community spends more than $2 billion each year to support humanitarian operations dependent on imported diesel, at times procured from black markets. Government subsidies of fuel imports can lead to devastating shortages. Traders resell stolen supplies at inflated prices.
The international community unwittingly contributes to South Sudan’s war economy and citizen dependence on a fuel source vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement. Winding down such missions tends to entail generators being redeployed and the diesel tap turned off – a missed opportunity. A US Institute of Peace report on South Sudan argues for a donor-led transition from diesel to solar, suggesting that the footprint of international field operations can be leveraged to create legacy energy assets.
Incentives for change
Success stories are few, tending to be ad hoc projects supported by individual champions rather than institution-level strategy. The Moving Energy Initiative report estimates investiments in effciency and renewable energy could save the humanitarian sector at least $500,000 in diesel bills each year. Meanwhile, an investment of $1.6 billion in solar power and cleaner cooking fuels could eradicate poverty for most displaced people.
Financing such change is not easy. The traditional donor country grant funding model is dominant with fast shifting regional priorities. Amounts target specific purposes that rarely include energy. Without specific funding partnerships, like the one between IKEA Foundation and UNHCR that provided grant funding for the Azraq solar farm, only large and independent actors can make capital investments with multi-year payback times. To help countries move beyond aid dependence requires going beyond the traditional grant funding model and considering other models that include blended finance from multilateral development banks, donor grants and local banks; risk guarantees; and mechanisms that encourage private-sector participation.
The World Bank is among the first major organisations to issue green bonds to support climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries, including renewable energy. Launched in 2017, the Humanitarian Impact Bond allows private investors to finance programs and receive returns from a donor according to program results. The Peace Renewable Energy Credit, a proposal for funding sustainable energy, aims to extend the billion-dollar global market for voluntary trading of environmental attribute claims, via North American Renewable Energy Credits and European Guarantees of Origin, to crisis settings. By monetizing renewable energy generation and associated climate and peace co-benefits in fragile countries, the credit introduces incentives for renewable investment in new parts of the world.
Investments in energy infrastructure are critical for Syria, Yemen and other countries ravaged by war and disaster. Given the politically charged environment in such countries, the viability of implementing energy supply options depends not only on technical considerations, but also on how each option interacts with the political economy under uncertain conditions. Crisis may prompt many to try less centralized forms of electricity, like solar, to sustain hospitals or food production. Planners should consider the role that energy might play in conflict mitigation.
Humanitarian assistance, while falling short of meeting needs, was estimated at a record $27.3 billion in 2016. Efficiency is essential. Changing weather patterns, a warming planet, depleted land and water resources will exacerbate trends in displacement. It would be ironic for the international agencies responsible for protecting lives and basic human rights to operate in a way that is blind to sustainability goals of war-torn nations or refugee hosts. Modern humanitarian and peacekeeping sectors can lead on new energies.
As conflicts subside, energy investments will return and influence configuration of political power. Cleaner energy cannot solve conflict, though its necessity can become an area of agreement among the many actors.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.