Why Kenya can’t ignore energy crisis in refugee camps

A woman prepares a meal for her children at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. PHOTO | AFP
A woman prepares a meal for her children at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. PHOTO | AFP 

The world’s 8.7 million refugees are struggling to find reliable and sustainable energy sources, forcing them to rely on traditional modes of lighting and heating, a newly released report on energy consumption among displaced people shows.

International not-for-profit energy agency GVEP says the growing population of displaced people is opening new social and economic challenges not only for refugees but also for host nations.

The burden of the energy challenges is manifest in refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma in northern Kenya that shelter millions of displaced people from Somalia and South Sudan.

A GVEP study found that 80 per cent of the approximately 8.7 million world refugees – forcibly displaced by conflict – rely on traditional energy sources such as charcoal, firewood or kerosene for cooking, lighting and heating.

These rudimentary energy sources often exert immense economic pressure on already poor communities such as those found in northern Kenya.


The report found that in 2014 alone, household energy use among forcibly displaced people amounted to 3.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent, predominantly in the form of firewood and charcoal.

These traditional forms of energy cost about Sh20,000 or ($200) annually per family of five people, which culminates into a yearly global total of approximately Sh214 billion ($2.1 billion).

The indirect costs incurred by host nations like Kenya are, however, more severe.

“The refugees may be the ones incurring expenses to buy wood and charcoal. But the sources of this energy are Kenyan forests in fragile ecosystems that are being depleted at alarming rates,” says Stephen Okello, the lead author of the study and an energy expert at GVEP International.

At Daadab for instance, where 98 per cent of households use firewood as the main source of cooking fuel, extensive deforestation has taken place over the years.

“The trail of destruction is immense and it’s like there are no trees left,” says Jechoniah Kitala, the consulting manager at Practical Action – a non-governmental agency that participated in the study dubbed Heat, Light and Power for Refugees Saving Lives, Reducing Costs.

Environmentalists warn that if the damage continues, there will be no trees left by the time Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps are closed.

Mr Kitala reckons that forests in these areas sit on arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL), making it difficult to regenerate or recover lost trees that took years to reach maturity.

The study warns that as forests diminish, rivers will dry and livestock pastures will become inadequate, deepening the levels of impoverishment in the region and escalating conflicts with Kenyan communities living in the areas as people begin scrambling for diminishing resources. 

Mr Okello says that as long as forests are left open for exploitation by refugees or middle men selling wood in camps, neighbouring local communities will also participate in the deforestation, accelerating environmental degradation.

“They will not have the incentive to use alternative clean fuel sources if they can get wood free of charge from forests,” he says.

Human dangers also abound as refugees move deeper into forests in search of firewood, making women and girls become vulnerable to sexual violence while children may end up missing school to help with the work.

Massive deforestation coupled with environmental pollution – due to the carbon dioxide and other green house gases released while burning firewood – are exacerbating climate change, a major cause of low agricultural productivity in Kenya and other developing nations.

Worse still, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that dependency on primitive fuels is a major cause of premature deaths for some 20,000 displaced people each year.

It is also a major contributor to respiratory diseases like pneumonia and heart conditions that often affect young children and the elderly.

“The government ends up spending millions to treat ailments that would have largely been prevented through use of clean energy,” Mr Okello says, adding that initially host countries never cared much about the energy needs of refugees as they were expected to only stay for a short period – about two years.

But with the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR statistics now showing that the average amount of time spent as a refugee is 17 years, energy experts says this energy crisis can no longer be ignored.

In Kenya, for instance, Daadab and Kakuma refugee camps have existed for more than 20 years.

“The economic implications of neglecting refugees’ energy needs are too high for host countries. So it’s a high time governments got concerned to curb environmental degradation,” Mr Kitala says.

He reckons that to achieve this goal, governments and humanitarian organisations should encourage private sector involvement in the supply of existing clean energy solutions such as solar grids, liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and ethanol to refugee camps.

Numerous non-governmental organisations that work with displaced communities currently attempt to play this role albeit ineffectively due to insufficient resources and expertise.

Mr Okello says the government, through its rural electrification programme, could also target refugee camps.

“There’s always the fear that this will make refugees comfortable and hence reluctant to go back to their countries but failure to do so spells doom for the country’s natural resources in the long term,” he says.

The report says the huge demand for clean energy sources in refugee camps is largely untapped and could be exploited by private investors.

For instance, administrative operations by humanitarian organisations in these camps mainly rely on diesel-powered generators yet ethanol would provide a low-cost environment friendly alternative.

Studies have also shown that refugees are willing to pay for solar technology, electricity and other forms of clean energy if provided as many have experienced the adverse effects of using firewood.

Such technologies will also enable thriving businesses in the camps to operate for long periods and make more profits.

“Some people are forced to close restaurants before dusk for lack of proper lightning,” Mr Okello says.

To fix the problem, Mr Kitala says enactment of appropriate policies to govern energy usage by refugees even before they are settled in the country could help. 

This will compel humanitarian organisations to ensure that displaced people use clean energy sources from the start.