Sustainable Energy Plans for Refugees

Zaha Masri
December 11, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are around 59.5 million people forcibly dispersed worldwide as a result of conflict, persecution and natural disasters. Some have been displaced within their own country, some are seeking asylum elsewhere, and some have been forced to leave their countries making them stateless. The UNHCR is an agency that calls for international action to protect the refugees and resolve the refugee crisis worldwide, whether it is by helping refugees return home, settle in other countries, or help them integrate locally. Their main focus is to protect refugee rights and ensure their overall welfare.

Although the concept of "refugees" is not a new phenomenon, there has been a steep increase in the numbers of conflicts very recently that has consequently resulted in a steep increase in the number of refugees. The gap between the growing number of displaced people and the available, basic resources to meet their needs is also growing. One of those essential resources is "energy". Access to clean and reliable energy is an important prerequisite for human development and is regarded as a basic human right. Without it, people would not have access to essential services such as lighting, cooking, heating and clean water. Protecting vulnerable people includes providing such services for them, and is one of the main missions of the UN.

The Moving Energy Initiative

"The Moving Energy Initiative" is an initiative set up by the UNHCR, along with several other organizations such as Practical Action Consulting, Chatham House, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and GVEP International. The goal of this initiative is to "increase access to appropriate sustainable energy among displaced people with a view to improving human security, building resilience, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. This will be achieved through practical demonstration of sustainable energy solutions, reform of relevant humanitarian policies and practices, and through enhanced private sector engagement". [1]

Millions of refugees lack access to clean and reliable energy sources, mainly because of the lack of proper funding allocated to it. The data on energy use by displaced people is also lacking, highlighting that it is a neglected field in general. Currently, energy used by displaced people in camps is environmentally, socially, and economically unsustainable. There is high dependence on traditional biomass for cooking, and very minimal access to electricity. Refugees have used around 3.5 million tons of oil equivalent in the form of charcoal, kerosene and firewood. [1] Use of primitive fuels like these has lead to premature death and serious illnesses each year for many of the displaced people living in camps, as dependence on kerosene lamps and diesel generators, although satisfy the immediate need of the refugees, is very expensive and in the long run, harms their well being. [1] Using firewood has also resulted in problems related to personal security, as girls and women face harassment when fetching the material for use at night. Girls and women also have less time for educational and social activities as they spend most of their time collecting the fuel. Given the sharp rise in refugee numbers and the long-term work required to solve this crisis, there needs to be better management of financial resources and its spending, especially in the energy sector. This can reduce the negative impacts of current energy use and offer new opportunities to improve the livelihood and well being of the refugees, as well as the general economic progress and overall environmental impact. [1]

Changing Current Infrastructure

For emergency situations, the current form of energy use is understandable. However, given that these refugees find themselves in these difficult circumstances for prolonged periods of time, there is a need for changing the way energy is delivered and consumed to these communities, to increase efficiency and ultimately increase their standard of living. By identifying what the energy needs are for refugees around the world as well as the costs currently incurred by the humanitarian and sectors supplying the camps with the materials needed, the initiative will then be able to rework and reform the current energy strategies to bring about a change in the way energy is delivered to and consumed by the people in the camps. [1]

The cost currently incurred by the UN and other organizations supporting the refugee camps are extremely high and generate millions of tons of CO2. Chatham House, one of the organizations involved in the initiative, recommends dispersing improved cooking stoves and solar lanterns: although having a higher initial capital cost of $335 million; it ends up saving $323 million in fuel costs. [2] The refugees themselves would mainly collect the annual fuel savings as they already spend huge portions of their income on energy. This also leads to emission savings of 6.85 million tons of CO2 every year. [3] The report calls for a plan to create a fund for better designed energy infrastructure by appealing to the private sector for help financially, but also for assistance in exploration of better solar technologies and renewable energy frameworks specifically designed for the camps.

Proper energy investments not only help displaced people better integrate but also helps local communities of host countries. For example, the Norwegian Refugee Council, with assistance from the Jordanian Government, is installing solar panels in schools that Syrian children from the camps attend. They are also installing solar water heaters in certain residential buildings in exchange for guaranteed housing and reduced rent prices for some refugees. Finally, the UNHCR and the Jordanian Government also have plans to build a big solar power near the Azraq camp to supply the camp with energy as well as local villages nearby. [3] This project would be permanent, benefiting the refugees during the time they are there, as well as local communities over time. Sometimes, it is regarded that life in refugee camps is a new normal for the displaced people; so making big investments for refugees is often tricky because host governments do not always want to accept this level of permanence. However, when it benefits the locals at the same time, there is more of a willingness and motivation to go ahead with these plans. [4]


In conclusion, new efforts in aligning refugee's energy needs with host governments existing policies are being tried in an attempt to benefit both the locals of the country and the displaced people. The MEI wants to incorporate displaced people in regional economies and energy markets, empowering them to become economically productive consumers, and limiting charitable donations that are not exactly sustainable. The end goal is to help them take back control of their lives, provide them with better sources of reliable energy, and decrease unnecessarily high financial, environmental and health costs.

© Zaha Masri. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Gunning, "The Current State of Sustainable Energy Provision for Displaced Populations: An Analysis," UK Royal Institute of International Affairs, December 2014.

[2] Kinver. Mark, "Wood-Based Fuels Threaten Health of Refugees," BBC News,17 Nov 15.

[3] A. Leach, "Clean Energy in Refugee Camps Could Save Millions of Dollars," The Guardian, 17 Nov 15.

[4] S. Jones, "One in Every 122 People Is Displaced by War, Violence and Persecution, Says UN," The Guardian, 18 Jun 15.