Millions of refugees are being put at greater risk because they do not have access to enough energy to cover their basic needs.
According to the latest figures from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, more than 96 per cent of more than 25 million displaced people are living in off-grid camps. And more than 84 per cent are cooking with biomass, like wood, daily.
To get by, many are forced to undercook meals, skip meals, or sell food rations to buy other forms of cooking fuel like gas.
"Without affordable, sustainable energy you cannot have safe food," Nadia Jbour, head of office at UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the UAE, told The National.
“Without affordable, sustainable energy kids cannot go to school, women become vulnerable to attacks at night and communities cannot thrive.
“Everybody has the right to have things like water, a proper education and security, but these people are missing out.”
A lack of energy resources has led to a number of health issues in camp settlements too, she said.
Extreme temperatures in inadequate shelters have spread illness like cold and flu, and lighting fires indoors for warmth has resulted in respiratory complications and lung conditions among some refugees.
During a panel discussion at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Ms Jbour, who recently joined the UNHCR office in the UAE, said providing humanitarian energy solutions in areas of displacement is the need of the hour.
“Refugees are desperate for energy. It is a major problem and a major violation of rights.
“One of the UN sustainable development goals is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy for all.
“We need to tackle this head on.”
The impact of having to use alternative energy resources like wood and fuel add to the growing climate crisis too.
Diesel generators create carbon emissions and the collection of firewood contributes to the destruction of trees, globally.
“Not only this, the constant battle to find substitute materials for cooking and heat can lead to friction and unrest between refugees camps and host communities due to competition of resources,” Ms Jbour said.
In terms of funding, humanitarian agencies are paying over the odds for the energy.
Each year, the UN spends about $100 million on generators and fuel. And for the whole of the humanitarian sector, that cost is estimated to be about $400 million.
“That money could be used differently. We need to reinvent energy solutions in these settlements to align with modern technology.”
One such project that did just that was at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
In 2017, the UNHCR built the largest solar plant of its kind and provided power to 80,000 people within the settlement.
The plant helped to reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions from the camp by 13,000 metric tonnes per year, the equivalent of 30,000 barrels of oil.
Affordable energy is just one of many needs of refugees, but it has received little attention in the humanitarian field over the years.
“The challenge now is how to make sure that energy becomes the mainstream need. We need to link old humanitarian efforts with new,” Ms Jbour said.
“Without access to water and electricity, food safety is compromised, a good education is out of reach, and health and safety becomes a huge issue.”
Where focus has typically been on traditional aid like food, clothes and water, improving energy solutions presents a host of opportunities. And it requires a collaborative effort from governments, entrepreneurs and society as a whole.
Provision of sustainable, reliable, affordable energy will increase a person’s dignity, improve refugee work skills and reduce the environmental footprint.
By enhancing the workforce skills of refugees, it can significantly help a person transition into life back home.
“These skills will never be lost. If they go home they can work. They will feel empowered, motivated.
“Just think about it. The average refugee spends 17 years of his or her life displaced.
“If you freeze someone’s life for 17 years it’s a lost generation. No education, no prospects, no opportunities for enhancing skills. It’s like stopping the clock on their life.”
But energy solutions could reverse this cycle. Electricity and water would provide an essential lifeline for camp residents, from job creation to lighting shelters, maintaining hygiene and preserving food.