Energy for Displaced Communities: How could Smart Villages help?

There are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people and 21.3 million refugees, hosted across the world (UNHCR). “Few forcibly displaced people” have access to modern energy. Out of 8.7 million refugees and displaced people in camps, only 11% have access to “reliable energy sources for lighting” (Chatham House, 2015).

However, forcibly displaced people and refugees are not always represented within initiatives to improve energy access (Chatham House, 2015).

The Smart Villages Initiative seeks to enable remote rural communities—without access to the grid—to harness energy as a catalyst for development, improving rural people’s livelihoods and enabling the provision of essential services. As we conduct our workshops across the globe, we are gaining valuable insights and lessons for the creation of “smart villages”. The relevance of these lessons may also extend to refugee camps, not only established rural settlements. Refugee camps are in themselves off-grid communities and lack energy infrastructure.

Most people assume that displaced communities and refugee camps are “temporary”, not necessarily requiring long-term energy solutions. However, the average length of time as a refugee is actually 17 years. In many cases, camps’ temporary status is maintained for political reasons; this inhibits the provision of long-term, more effective energy solutions.

Long-term energy solutions can have real benefits in the form of a legacy asset for local communities. For example, the UNHCR Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign is funding the construction of a 6 MW grid-connected solar farm in the Azraq Syrian refugee camp that can continue to be used after the refugees leave. Such interventions can also help meet national policy targets on renewable energy and deforestation.

There is, however, a shortage of energy expertise within the humanitarian system, and it is here that initiatives like Smart Villages and other rural energy programmes can play a key role.

For example, one finding by the Moving Energy Initiative (described below) is the need for innovative financing models. Expertise from Smart Village Initiative workshops around innovative financing, private sector involvement, and payment models such as “pay as you go” for low-income rural households, could be harnessed for the benefit of refugee camps and displaced communities.

Energy’s benefits to refugee camps mirror those we see in the broader energy access discourse: for example, improved health from the use of clean cookstoves and better access to education through improved lighting and technology. In addition to improving standards of living, energy can act as a catalyst for productive enterprises. Refugee camps vary in size, but there could be a market present that would enable economic productivity.

We should bear in mind that there is still a lack of detailed energy-related data on refugee camps and other displacement contexts. This is something that the Moving Energy Initiative has cited as an important imperative for change (Chatham House, 2015).

The Moving Energy Initiative, funded by DFID, seeks to meet the energy needs of displaced communities, going beyond lighting and considering heating/cooling, cooking, electrification, and clean water and sanitation. A sustainable and integrated solution is needed to achieve this, and the initiative will work to reform humanitarian policies in this area and engage the private sector. Solutions will aim to benefit host countries and communities and create opportunities for income generation and knowledge transfer where possible. The project is backed by a consortium of Energy4Impact (formerly GVEP), Chatham House, UNHCR, The Norwegian Refugee Council, and Practical Action. Research and project implementation is taking place/being planned in Burkina Faso, Kenya and Jordan.

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Image Credit: Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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