Blog: Safe Access to Fuel and Energy

January 26, 2018

Author: Luc Severi, UN Foundation

This article has been re-posted from the Moving Energy Initiative. View the original article.

Conflict, violence and natural disasters have forced more than 65 million people globally to flee their homes. Although many relief efforts bring food, shelter and medicine to affected populations, the provision of reliable energy is often overlooked.

In recent months, however, the energy-humanitarian nexus has seen an increase in interest among both the energy and humanitarian communities. In November 2017, nearly 150 energy and humanitarian experts gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for the fourth annual Safe Access to Fuels and Energy (SAFE) Humanitarian Workshop, which aimed to build momentum to address this nexus in 2018 and beyond, by providing participants with an opportunity to step back and assess some of the trends and challenges that are currently holding back the deployment of sustainable energy solutions on a large scale.

The lack of access to energy impacts internally displaced peoples (IDPs), refugees and migrants in multiple ways. Their health is threatened when they are forced to cook over makeshift stoves or go without medical services that depend on electricity. Their safety and security are at risk when public areas are not well-lit and when women and children must travel distances to collect firewood for heat and cooking. And their quality of life is compromised without heating or cooling facilities used to store food or to keep living areas and even hospitals warm in the winter and cool in the summer. While these energy needs in a humanitarian context are significant, there is currently insufficient data available to capture current energy consumption and expenditure, as well as energy needs in humanitarian settings.

In recent years, however, interventions such as the Moving Energy Initiative have started making important inroads to address the data gap, particularly in assessing the energy needs of refugees and refugee camp operations. The data for actual energy interventions typically doesn’t extend beyond collecting so-called output indicators (e.g. total number of solar lanterns distributed). Despite the short-term nature of most humanitarian relief interventions, a shift towards more impact-related indicators (e.g. improvements in health outcomes or livelihoods) is required, further emphasizing the need to invest in appropriate monitoring and evaluation frameworks. The availability of reliable data of past and present interventions will be a key part in highlighting the importance of addressing the energy gap in humanitarian settings, as well as showcasing how large the gap remains. 

A second key issue lies in the challenges and opportunities of bringing in private sector actors to deploy energy solutions. Pilot projects are already underway in several countries and refugee camps to provide energy products – solar lanterns and cookstoves primarily – through a market-based approach, with the hope of making energy solutions more affordable and accessible. For this to work, however, several pre-conditions need to be met.  For example:

  • The private sector needs to be able - and willing - to serve the affected population. The size of the market or the total number of potential customers in a refugee camp, the cost of distribution, and the time-related risks (e.g. warranty claims) involved in deploying energy products are all potential challenges for a company to evaluate a refugee camp as a potential market. In some cases, ‘de-risking’ the intervention and incentivizing private sector actors may resolve these barriers.
  • The affected population needs to be willing and able to provide a form of payment for the energy products and services. This is heavily reliant on the existing spending pattern for satisfying energy needs, their ability to seek employment and earn a living, or alternatively the existence of voucher systems for energy products. Pay-as-you-go financing arrangements, which are increasingly available for rural households in developing countries, may provide another opportunity to reduce the immediate financial burden for households in refugee settlements, though here too ‘de-risking’ may be required for a company to see a refugee camp as a potential market.

A child born in a refugee camp could spend their entire childhood without energy – no task lamp to light birth, no cold chain to deliver life-saving vaccines, no fuel to power a clean burning cookstove, no lamp to read or study by at night. While this varies largely on the nature of the emergency situation, it ultimately indicates the need - and opportunity - for large scale and long-term energy solutions to be provided to affected communities. As innovative models for both financing and deployment are trialed in several refugee camps, a significant need remains to share the lessons learnt, evaluate indicators of success and continue to remove barriers for private sector engagement in this space. For this to happen, in the absence of a dedicated cluster on energy in the UN system, the energy and the humanitarian communities must increase their coordination through platforms such as the SAFE Working Group, EnergyCOP, EnergyPedia, as well as the Moving Energy Initiative.

We still have a long way to go before energy access becomes an integrated part of all future humanitarian responses, but there is reason to be hopeful as UN agencies, energy companies, relief organizations, financial institutions and many others join this growing community and continue to work towards achieving both the Agenda for Humanity and Sustainable Development Goal 7.