Sustainable energy in situations of displacement

Since 2016 UDP has been working with UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations to better understand the issues and opportunities surrounding access to clean energy in situations of displacement

By the end of 2019, 79.5m people had been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order. This is more than 1% of the world’s population. UNHCR and host countries are struggling to accommodate growing numbers of refugees, 85% of whom are hosted by low or middle-income countries.

While global data remains patchy and unstandardized, approximately 90% of refugees living in rural settlements have very limited access to reliable, clean and sustainable electricity or cooking fuels. An initial baseline of energy data in displacement was published to accompany the launch of UNHCR’s Clean Energy Challenge, in December 2019, though this remains limited in scope and comparability.

Fuel poverty among displaced ‘persons of concern’ often leads to unsustainable deforestation and a range of risks to human life and health, including indoor air pollution, conflict with local communities and violent crimes committed against the refugee women and children who walk to harvest woodfuel. The lack of access to reliable electricity supresses opportunities for education and income generating activities for families, and can undermine the ability of humanitarian organisations to deliver essential services. The critical role of energy became clear in 2020 as part of UN’s global COVID-19 Humanitarian Response.

Despite these clear issues and opportunities, access to sustainable energy has been overlooked or neglected within the humanitarian agenda because of a lack of expertise and funding, or a reluctance from host governments to authorize long-term infrastructure in ‘temporary’ settlements. Research into these issues was first conducted by the Moving Energy Initiative (2015-2020), which we seek to build upon.

Global advocacy and the organisation of data, evidence and research

At the global level UDP is a co-founder and Steering Group Member of the UN’s inter-agency Global Plan of Action (GPA) for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Situations of Displacement, launched in New York in July 2018, as part of the High Level Policy Forum reviewing progress towards SDG#7.

Among other issues, the GPA framework document highlights the lack of data and empirical evidence as a major factor limiting the development and implementation of sustainable energy solutions in the context of humanitarian assistance. Where data does exist it is piecemeal and often not comparable, meaning that global tracking for SDG7 in situations of displacement is not currently possible.

UDP co-chairs the GPA working group on data, evidence and research, and in this capacity is helping to scope priority activities and outputs of benefit to UNHCR and other lead UN agencies party to the GPA such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Programme (WFP). One such technical output is a guidance document co-authored by UDP entitled “From Assessment to Investment: A Guide to Creating a Pipeline of Clean Energy Access Projects in Situations of Displacement”, the rationale for which is summarised in this article. Another ongoing activity is the process of developing commonly agreed minimum indicators for energy projects, which is a priority within the GPA work plan for 2020. More broadly, the key data-related research questions we aim to answer are:

  1. What quantitative data are needed in humanitarian settings and how can it be provided effectively for end-users?
  2. How can evidence feed into developing more sustainable energy systems in humanitarian settings to improve the quality of life of refugees?
  3. How can data sharing approaches and capacity building be developed between academics, humanitarian organisations and practitioners?

Research for project development at the country level: market creation, business models and private sector partnerships

In 2017, UDP conducted research in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in western Tanzania, to strengthen the case for diverting existing resources towards the financing of simple, known, tried-and-tested technical solutions to this problem, e.g. the roll-out of cleaner energy technologies at the household level. Similar research was carried out in Uganda in early 2018. This work also aimed to raise awareness of the dollar-value of these environmental and social ‘externalities’, to secure additional funding and/or create markets for the widespread roll-out of cleaner and safer energy technologies for displaced persons and host community members.

Our research in Tanzania revealed the latent market demand for LPG among refugees, as a cleaner, safer and low-carbon option compared to the baseline scenario. This led to a 3.4m USD market creation plan and funding proposal submitted by the Global LPG Partnership in 2020, endorsed by UNHCR and the Government of Tanzania. The project aims to provide time-bound subsidies to supply 88,000 refugees and 40,000 host community members as a means to overcome the capital barriers to market entry. Recent work by Shell has highlighted and quantified the need and opportunities for private energy companies to access the largely untapped humanitarian market, serving both displaced persons and nearby host communities.

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Focus area: Climate Planning and Policy, Supporting sustainable energy & transport access & transition

Country / Region: Tanzania

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James Haselip

Senior Researcher

Phone: +45 3036 3444
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