Cooking Energy in Refugee Camps- Challenges and Opportunities

From energypedia


Access to cooking energy is important for refugees as most of the food that is supplied in refugee camps is raw and has to be cooked (Chatham House, 2016). Refugees in low and middle income countries rely mostly on firewood and charcoal for cooking (Gunning, 2014). This article provides an overview of diffent cooking fuels/technologies used by refugees and the associated challenges with each fuel.

Overview of different cooking fuels/technologies

Firewood for Cooking

In refugee camps, firewood demand is estimated to be 0.7-3 kg per person per day (Gunning, 2014). Humanitarian organizations provide only a part of this demand (as little as 10% of the household demand) (Lehne, Blyth, Lahn, Bazilian, & Grafham, 2016) and to meet the rest of the demand, refugees collect firewood from the areas nearby the camp or buy firewood from the host community. They further use an open fire or a three-stone traditional cook stove to cook their food. These traditional cook stoves are highly inefficient (efficiency rate is lower than 15%) and thus, require a lot of firewood (Owen, Stone, Davey, & Peterson, 2002). This demand for firewood has a social, environmental, financial and health impact on the refugees as well as on the host countries and is discussed below.

Impact of Using Firewood for Cooking

Finacial Impact

Financial impact – In 2014, a refugee family of five spent at least USD 200 per year on firewood. This led to a global total of USD 2.1 billion that was spent on buying firewood. Also United Nations spent 10% of its peacekeeping budget in 2014 (more than USD 700 million) only on cooking fuel for refugees (Lehne et al., 2016). Therefore, it is expensive for the humanitarian organizations as well as the refugees to meet the cooking energy demand using firewood.

Environmental Impact

To meet their fuel demands, refugee families collect wood from the areas nearby the camp, leading to deforestation around the camp. In some cases, refugees travel as far as from 5 to 50 km to collect firewood as the area nearby has already been destroyed. It is estimated that 65,000 acres of forestland was used in 2014 to provide energy for refugee camps. Also, in 2014, refugees burnt 3.9 million tons of oil equivalent in the form of firewood and charcoal, emitting 14.3 million tons of CO2 (Gunning, 2014; Lehne et al., 2016).

Social Impact 

In communities where firewood is already a scarce resource, access access to firewood creates tension between the host and the refugee community. The host community might view the refugee community as competitors and resent them. The refugee community might also be involved in illegal harvesting of firewood, which further aggravates the conflict. This can also force the host country to restrict its refugee policy. Similarly cases of gender based violence and sexual harassment have been recorded when the refugees venture out of the camps to collect firewood (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 2016c, 2016a). Lack of firewood also forces many refugees to sell part of their food ration to buy fuel. They might also have to miss meals or eat uncooked meals (Lehne et al., 2016).

Health Impact

Cooking on an open fire or a traditional cook stove releases high level of air pollutants. These pollutants cause different respiratory disease such as pneumonia and lung cancer (Chatham House, 2016). For example, in Nepal, Acute respiratory infections (ARI) was observed to be 10-17 times higher among refugees as compared to non-crisis settings (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 2016a). Therefore, cooking with firewood is not a sustainable option for refugees. The section below looks into some of the alternatives energy solutions and also addresses the challenges for implementing these alternative solutions.

Gender Based Violence (GBV)

In most of the refugees camps, women and children are mainly responsible for collecting firewood and in many cases, they travel up to 20 km into unsafe areas to collect firewood. This could lead to cases of sexual assault and robbery among women and children while collecting firewood. In most cases, the women and children, do not report the sexual assault as they are afraid of social stigma as well as further persecution by the police and the local security authority.

Alternative Cooking Energy Solutions for Refugee Camps

Improved Cooking Stoves (ICS)

ICS are an upgrade to the traditional cook stoves and include an insulated fireplace to reduce the heat loss and have a better flow of air and hot gases, resulting in faster cooking. Compared to traditional stoves, ICS have a fuel efficiency of at least 25% (Owen et al., 2002). This increased fuel efficiency reduces the amount of firewood required for cooking as well as reduces the smoke coming from firewood burning. The reduced firewood demand results in a) reduced deforestation, b) reduced risk of gender-based violence as the refugees will have to make fewer trips to collect wood c) reduced need to either skip meals or to sell part of their food ration to buy fuel and d) reduced indoor air pollution (Barbieri, Riva, & Colombo, 2017; Gunning, 2014).

Due to these advantages, improved cook stoves have been implemented in various refugee camps in countries such as Kenya, Uganda etc. where the principle fuels are firewood and charcoal (Owen et al., 2002).


ICS have initial fixed costs and need regular repair and maintenance. Hence, the refugee families might not be able to cover the upfront cost as well as the regular maintenance cost. Similarly there is a perception that food cooked on a traditional open fire is tastier and therefore refugees might not be willing to switch to ICS (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 2016a).

Supplying ICS to the refugee families will not automatically reduce the firewood consumption as the efficiency of the ICS depends on how accurately and efficiently they have been used (Gunning, 2014). Cooking techniques also differ from culture to culture and from region to region. Thus, the proposed ICS should be designed to meet the cooking needs of the target community or else they might be rejected (Lehne et al., 2016). In communities where firewood is not a scarce resource, there might be less willingness to adopt the ICS. In this case, benefits like reduced indoor air pollution and faster cooking could help to convince the beneficiary group (Owen et al., 2002).

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)

LPG is a clean-burning mixture of propane and butane gas. It can be used as fuel in cooking appliances and vehicles. LPG has a calorific value of 20.7 MJ/kg. At 45% efficiency, 1 kg of LPG used in an LPG cooker replaces 10.8 kg of wood used in a traditional stove (with 20% efficiency) and 6.5 kg of wood used in an improved cook stove (with 28% efficiency) (Sepp, 2014; World LPG Association, 2016). For example, in 2016 in Tanzania, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributed LPG stoves to 150,000 refugee families in Nyarugusu camp and found that the firewood demand dropped by 70% among the beneficiary group (UNHCR, 2017a).

LPG, although a fossil fuel, produces far less greenhouse gas emission per unit of cooking energy as compared to the traditional stoves. It also solves the problem of indoor air pollution. It is portable and easy to transport to different locations. The LPG cookers are mostly attractive for refugees living in urban areas as they might have limited access to firewood and charcoal (Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, 2016a). Read more...


LPG has always been viewed as fuel for the rich people and therefore, the refugees might not be able to afford it (Sepp, 2014). However, providing loans to refugee families could help to cover the upfront cost and also increase the uptake of LPG. For example, from 2005 to 2007, Practical Action supplied loans to selected families in South Sudan to cover the upfront cost of the LPG. The beneficiary group included both refugee and non-refugee population. At the end of the project, they found out that the families were able to save up to 65% of their fuel cost by switching to LPG. The amount saved was later used to pay for the initial loan (Practical Action, 2015).

LPG is highly flammable which increases its safety concern among refugees. Therefore there is need to create awareness about the use of LPG before distributing it to the target community. Since most of the LPG cylinders are either imported or transported over long distances, the supply can be interrupted by any local or regional conflict happening in the host country. The irregular supply could then deter the uptake of the LPG (Gunning, 2014; World LPG Association, 2016).


Biogas is a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide that is produced during the anaerobic digestion of organic matter (Energypedia, 2017). The organic matter can be animal dung, vegetable residue or human waste. Biogas has a calorific value of 21.3 MJ/m3 and is equivalent to energy contained in 1.4 kg of air dried wood. It burns with a hot blue flame and can be used for cooking and lighting (Owen et al., 2002).

The literature review shows that biogas is mostly used for addressing the water and sanitation (WASH) issues in the refugee camps but it can also be used to address the cooking energy demand of the refugees (Eyrard, Girard, & Alome, 2016). Using biogas for cooking helps to reduce the firewood demand and prevent all the social and environmental problems associated with firewood. For example, UNHCR implement a biogas project in eastern Afghanistan from 1990 to 2001. This project helped to reduce the firewood demand by 2.5 tons per household per annum, resulting in a total saving of 250 tons of firewood in the target community (Owen et al., 2002).


Biogas plant for individual person requires high investment cost that might not be easily available. Similarly, communal biogas plants will only be successful if there is a strong sense of community in the camp or else there might be disagreements about who should benefit from the biogas. Therefore, it is important to establish clear right and responsibility for the use and maintenance of a communal biogas plant, to avoid future conflicts.

Using biogas for cooking might be a taboo in some communities. This could hinder the use of biogas energy for cooking. For example, in 1997, UNHCR conducted a communal biogas program in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal to address the poor sanitation and energy situation in the camps. This project improved the sanitation condition by building bio-latrines. The human waste from the bio-latrines was then used to produce biogas for cooking. However, the target communities were hesitant in using the biogas for cooking as it was a taboo in that region. Therefore the project was not successfully in meeting the energy demand but ended up becoming a successful WASH project (Owen et al., 2002).Adequate water supply is a pre-requisite for building a biogas plant. This might not be possible in refugee camps which are already struggling with water scarcity. Thus, before installing a biogas plant, it is necessary to study the energy demand of the target population, the organic materials available for biogas generation and the target communities’ willing to use biogas for cooking.


Publication: Funding and Delivery Models for Modern Energy Cooking Services in Displacement Settings: A Review


Access to cooking energy for refugees is a multi-faceted problem. There is no universal solution but rather differs from one context to another. Firewood is the default energy source in many refugee camps but using firewood is costly for both the refugees as well as the humanitarian organizations. Therefore, it is important to look into alternative cooking energy solutions. This article presents only selected alternative solutions and for a complete picture, it is recommended to look into all available alternative solutions such as solar cooker, community cooking etc. Similarly, the alternatives discussed in this article are long term energy solutions. They need regular maintenance in case of ICS and biogas and regular refilling in case of LPG cylinders. Therefore, this article urges the humanitarian organizations to develop a long term strategy for not only implementing the alternative solutions but also for providing regular maintenance and support. Each refugee camp has its own cooking needs. Thus, no matter what alternative energy solution is chosen, it should meet the cooking needs of the refugees, be socially/culturally accepted by the refugees, not create conflict between the host community and the refugees protect the environment and be financially viable.

Further Readings


  • Barbieri, J., Riva, F., & Colombo, E. (2017). Cooking in refugee camps and informal settlements: A review of available technologies and impacts on the socio-economic and environmental perspective. Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, 22.
  • Carbon Footprint Ltd. (2017). Improved cookstoves for social impact in Ugandan communities. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from
  • Chatham House. (2016). The Energy Situation in the Dadaab Refugee Camps, Kenya.
  • Energypedia. (2017). Energypedia - Biogas Portal. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from
  • Eyrard, J., Girard, A., & Alome, K. (2016). Biogas production in refugee camps: when sustainability increases safety and dignity.
  • Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (2016a). Cooking innovation in Humanitarian Settings: How cooking technologies and fuels are transforming refugee & IDP lives and livelihoods.
  • Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (2016b). Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves awards grant for research on gender-based violence and clean cooking interventions. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from
  • Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. (2016c). Statistical snapshot: Access to improved cookstoves and fuels and its impact on women’s safety in crises.
  • Gunning, R. (2014). The current state of sustainable energy provision for displaced populations: An analysis.
  • Lehne, J., Blyth, W., Lahn, G., Bazilian, M., & Grafham, O. (2016). Energy services for refugees and displaced people. Energy Strategy Reviews, 13(14), 134–146.
  • Owen, M., Stone, D., Davey, C., & Peterson, M. (2002). Cooking options in refugee situation: A handbook of experiences in energy conservation and alternative fuels. United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
  • Practical Action. (2015). Energising the energy sector in Sudan.
  • Sepp, S. (2014). Multiple-household fuel use – a balanced choice between firewood, charcoal and LPG. *Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.
  • UNHCR. (2017a). Gas initiative protecting refugees and improving lives. Retrieved November 28, 2017, from
  • UNHCR. (2017b). Global trends: Forced displacement in 2016.
  • World LPG Association. (2016). Opportunities for LPG use in Humanitarian Settings.