It’s time to talk about improving energy access for displaced people

This World Refugee Day, EEG’s programme director Simon Trace discusses some of the energy access challenges facing displaced people, and explores the potential solutions


Conflict and natural disasters have caused a sharp rise in human displacement globally over the last 15 years. In 2017, it was estimated that 134 million people were displaced, with 68.5 million people forced to leave their homes because of conflict. Weather-related disasters were responsible for 18 million new displaced people globally in 2017.

Settlements for displaced people, initially set up as areas of temporary refuge, grow into towns, slums, and small cities, often with tenuous political status and rights for inhabitants and dilapidated living conditions. Far from being temporary, the average life of existing humanitarian camps is about 18 years and growing.

Energy challenges

For displaced populations living in these camps, the energy challenges can be unique. Camps are often sited in remote areas, poorly served by state infrastructure – usually with no connection to safe water, sanitation systems, or the national grid.

Indeed, energy provision is rarely planned. More commonly, those in charge of camps deploy diesel generators intended for temporary use, but these become long-standing features that are poorly maintained and inefficiently loaded. Clean cookstoves and solar lights have been handed out in some locations, but on an ad hoc basis. Traditional three-stone fires are predominantly relied on for cooking, and kerosene, candles, or torches for lighting. The Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) estimated that, in 2017, 88 per cent of camp dwellers were reliant on such rudimentary means and had scant, if any, access to electricity.

Energy is critical to key development priorities, including health, education, and livelihoods. Energy services are therefore essential to improving displaced people’s life-chances, whether through powering clinics, pumping and treating water, enabling clean cooking, lighting and phone charging, or facilitating educational and productive activities that can help people to earn a living. And people’s desire for energy services is strong. In most cases, refugees are already paying for the energy that is available, and often at a high price relative to the quality of access they receive.

From a humanitarian perspective, energy investments can help to achieve greater security for displaced people and reduce tensions with the host community. Human displacement often puts more pressure on systems and environments that are already stressed and fragile. And while weather-related disasters usually lead to more temporary, less politically sensitive displacement than heavy conflict, they tend to impair infrastructure, including that for supplying energy.

Around 95% of forcibly displaced people are living in developing countries, each with their own poverty and environmental fragility problems (sub-Saharan Africa, the most challenged region in the world in terms of energy access, hosts over a quarter of the world’s forcibly displaced people). Investments in energy can play an important role in easing the pressure on resources (including wood, charcoal, and electricity), infrastructure, and services caused through migration.

Response and resilience

Until recently, displaced people were largely absent from the global energy access agenda, and energy wasn’t a key feature of humanitarian relief. In the last few years, a ‘response and resilience’ agenda has emerged in efforts to address large-scale mass migration crises. Response plans, jointly drawn up by a mix of UN, government, and NGO bodies, look to channel aid to meet both refugees’ needs and longer-term development. Response and resilience plans in Uganda, Jordan, Lebanon, and Bangladesh define energy as a priority. Governments identify energy as an area of stress, for which aid can help them to better cope with the new influx of people.

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Possible options for providing energy for displaced groups

Where displaced people are housed in camps, the potential options depend on a range of factors. These include who has authority over camp infrastructure and operations, the age and size of the camp, distance from the national grid, proximity to host communities, the level of security, the political acceptance of the camp, what is already in place, and the legal rights and willingness to pay of inhabitants.

Where there is a sizeable displaced group, potentially situated close to host communities, and there is government acceptance for a long-term stay, an area may merit grid extension. If a grid extension for a rural area has already been planned, the additional population may justify the cost.

In some cases, it will make sense to construct a power plant near to the camp to provide a new, local source of power. The plant can either provide power exclusively to the camp or, where infrastructure and regulations permit, excess power can be sold back to the national grid.

There are also a range of off-grid generation technologies available that can power water pumps, schools, clinics, offices, and training centres serving displaced people. Solar water pumping, solar thermal water heating or boiling, biogas from waste for heating and community cooking, and solar PV for power are increasingly prevalent in camps, and are frequently more cost-effective than diesel generators. Solar home systems can generally provide enough electricity to power lighting, a radio, or television, charge mobile phones, and perhaps enable a fan or sewing machine to operate.

Where possible, energy access plans should include programmes to upgrade camp shelters to enable greater use of natural lighting, window shading, insulation, and heat deflection. All these measures reduce the amount of energy supply needed for basic comfort.

In situations where the majority of displaced people are living among the host population, rather than in camps, energy access issues cannot necessarily be separated from the local and national ones. This means that efforts to improve energy access should include and not necessarily discriminate between locals and displaced people.

Moving forward

There are of course challenges and barriers to overcome. These include a lack of data, capacity and financial limitations restricting the humanitarian sector, the business and investment risks involved in operating in displacement situations, and the multiple layers of authority that any project will need to negotiate.

There is a need for cooperation among stakeholders, and an understanding of who is already doing what and where. It may be, for example, that energy access for refugees or energy resilience support for a hosting country can be most effectively added onto an ongoing government, local NGO, or UN programme with some additional resources, at lower cost and with more long-term sustainability than starting afresh.

People forcibly displaced from their homes are ‘left behind’ in many ways – including in terms of energy access, which is essential from both a humanitarian and development perspective. Human displacement situations are uncertain, presenting many challenges to financiers and investors interested in supporting energy access, and approaches will need to take into account a range of additional factors that could affect displaced groups – including lack of citizenship rights, political sensitivity around their length of stay, and transitory arrangements.

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