In an emergency like the refugee crisis, it’s easy to forget all your good training. After all, why bother about renewable energy when there are people to be housed and fed, lives to be saved? But taking care of energy isn’t just good form–it could actually save lives, prevent rape, and stop children from getting sick.
A new report published by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, details the human and environmental damage caused by non-renewable energy and offers suggestions for the future.
There are 60 million forcibly displaced people on the planet, says the report, and few of those are using renewable energy for power, heating, or cooking. Of the almost 9 million refugees in camps, 80% have “absolutely minimal access to energy: They burn things to cook, and they have no electricity. Any energy that is produced usually comes from burning charcoal or wood, the equivalent of around 3.9 million tons of oil annually. This is paid for by the people using it, at a yearly cost of around $200 per family, or $2.1 billion combined, and the environmental cost is huge, too: 64,700 acres of forest is burned each year by families living in camps.
This leads to greater emissions, which is a problem when so many people are involved, but perhaps more compelling to policymakers is the fact that all that burning is hazardous to the health of refugees. The World Health Organization says that “dependency on primitive fuels is a cause of premature death for some 20,000 displaced people each year.” Children and old people also suffer from respiratory problems, all those open flames set things on fire, and kids even sometimes drink kerosene stored in plastic bottles.
There are less obvious effects, too. Women and girls sent out to gather firewood are regularly raped. The paper cites a Doctors Without Borders report, which says that over a five month period, it treated nearly 500 Darfuri women and girls in Sudan who were raped while collecting firewood or water outside of their camps. Because gathering of firewood outside camps is often illegal, women don’t report attacks.
The benefits of using alternative forms of energy, then. But how can changes be achieved on such a large scale, in places where infrastructure is often lacking?
The first is for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to clean up its act. The UNHCR itself relies on fossil fuels, and this practice is currently under review. It will also add energy use to its other sustainability objectives: sanitation, education and so on.
Next is longer-term thinking. Short-term planning is really no planning at all. Host nations often fail to plan for the long haul because governments are in denial about the “duration of stay” of refugees. The average amount of time spent as a refugee is 17 years. Long-term planning is essential to move away from the quick-fix of easily available fossil fuels.
Another solution is education and engagement with communities. The report mentions solar cookers, lamps, or more efficient cooking stoves. These are often distributed, but then they’re not always used.
Last, governments also need to acknowledge their refugee populations and make laws to accommodate them. This would lead to entrepreneurship amongst refugees, now on a more stable legal footing, as well as a better situation for reporting of rape and other crimes.
Clearly the problem is far more complex than greening our own usual energy use, and we haven’t even managed that. But now at least the UN is acknowledging the problem. This, as we have seen with the UN Millennium Development Goals, is enough to make a big difference.