UN renewables drive helps Syrian refugees

UN renewables drive helps Syrian refugees
Syrian refugee children play at Azraq refugee camp for Syrians displaced by conflict, in Jordan. (Reuters)
Updated 18 May 2018

UN renewables drive helps Syrian refugees

UN renewables drive helps Syrian refugees
  • Displaced people to get access to sustainable energy by 2030
  • Electric power not regarded as a human “right” until now

Aid agencies and governments are transforming the way they provide energy to families forced to flee their homes around the world — including setting up solar power plants at camps for Syrians in Jordan.

Energy has always been needed in the camps and informal settlements home to tens of millions of people uprooted by conflicts or natural disasters.

But it has largely been in the form of polluting diesel generators, fossil fuels for trucks to move relief supplies, or locally harvested firewood for cooking.

That is changing, with UN agencies, aid groups, major refugee-hosting countries and businesses preparing in July to sign up to a global action plan to provide all displaced people with access to sustainable energy by 2030.

“People are beginning to realize that this is an important issue, and something that deserves priority, resources and attention,” said Owen Grafham from the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), a partnership managed by London-based think tank Chatham House, which is working on the action plan.

In camps, about 90 percent of people lack electricity, while 80 percent rely on firewood and other solid fuels to cook, which are harmful to their health and local forests, according to MEI.

Electric power has not been regarded as a human “right” in emergency situations, unlike shelter, water, food or health care, said Andrew Harper of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

“Energy is really not something that is fully taken into account,” he said. But it is “the key to empowering refugees and displaced persons,” added the UNHCR’s director of program support and former representative in Jordan.

In 2012 when Jordan’s Za’atari camp opened — home at one point to as many as 130,000 Syrian refugees — Friday prayers would sometimes be followed by “a riot,” with frustrated, anxious residents destroying things and throwing stones, Harper said.

But once UNHCR began spending up to $450,000 each month on electricity supplied to the camp via a grid connection, refugees used it to set up some 3,000 shops and businesses, and the rampages stopped, he said.

“They started feeling possessive, protective, engaged in the stability of the camp,” he added.

Since last year, two of Jordan’s main refugee camps have used power produced by their own solar plants — one in Za’atari funded by German development bank KfW and the other in Azraq backed by the IKEA Foundation — that can also feed back surplus electricity into the national grid.

Sarah Rosenberg-Jansen, head of humanitarian energy at UK-based charity Practical Action, said Jordan’s government takes the wider view that getting camps connected will improve the country’s infrastructure and support national development.

“They see it as an opportunity, and as a way to change perceptions in host communities that this is good for both of us — not just for refugees,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Practical Action is embarking on a project in the north Jordan city of Irbid, also funded by the IKEA Foundation, that will assist landlords renting properties to vulnerable refugee families to install rooftop solar systems for heating water.

Energy underpins many things displaced people need to do in their daily lives, said Rosenberg-Jansen — from charging mobile phones used to contact relatives and transfer money, to washing clothes, lighting, entertainment and moving around.

But the answer is not to distribute energy for free, she added. “There is already a market there (in camps),” with households spending a relatively high proportion of their disposable income on energy, she noted.

Handouts risk destroying that market, and making people worse off by giving them products they do not want, she said.

The forthcoming global action plan will include targets and concrete ways of reaching them, those drafting it said.

UNHCR’s Harper said aid organizations needed to collaborate with business, governments and development banks to overcome barriers to building and operating clean energy services for refugees and displaced people. Problems include high upfront costs, onerous bureaucracy and restrictive regulations.

In Za’atari, for example, UNHCR found refugees were willing to buy electricity but the agency had no mechanism to receive payment.