Cooking Energy in Refugee Situations

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This article gives an overview of the cooking energy situation in refugee camps. Its focus lies on the firewood shortage around campsites, resulting problems, and possible solutions to make cooking energy supply sustainable. These are enhanced by two case studies, and specific challenges are highlighted.
Internally displaced people are not mentioned separately, and little attention is given to short-term interventions or non-camp structures.



The UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country." There are currently more than 10 million refugees worldwide[1], living in camps of varying sizes and conditions.

Due to their nature, refugee camps are often set up in a quick and uncontrolled manner, housing tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in a small, unsuitable location. Refugees arrive without food and shelter, dependent on help.

Governments hosting international refugees may even choose an inferior area for settlement to discourage long-term residency. This results in an inherent environmental unsustainability. Although many necessities, such as food and medicine, are provided externally by aid agencies, families usually have to collect and purchase their cooking fuels themselves. Energy for cooking is the largest need of displaced people, and firewood with basic cooking techniques is used almost exclusively, adding to wood demand for infrastructure and income generation.

After just six months, demand for wood-based fuel in Tanzania after an influx of 500 000 Rwandese refugees resulted in the deforestation of a five kilometres radius around the campsites[2]. In an extreme example, in Dadaab in North-East Kenya, the arguably biggest refugee camp in the world, the deforestation radius increased from 5-10km to 70 kilometres around the camp in the last 20 years[3]. Households can no longer collect fuel individually.

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The Multi-Dimensional Energy Supply Problem[4][5][6]

Lack of accessible biomass ressources influences refugees in many dimensions:

  1. Food security dimension: Refugees are usually supplied staple food such as rice or grain, which are indigestible when eaten raw. Many choose to barter the little food they have for firewood to at least supply a little bit of undercooked food to their families.
  2. Health dimension: Cooking energy problems add to the already prevalent under- and malnourishment in camps. In addition, smoke-related illnesses through excess indoor air pollution, resulting from the problem of burning wood inefficiently, cost hours of productive time and even lives. Doctors are a rarity in most refugee camps.
  3. Shelter dimension: As an alternative to tents, the more stable houses and fences are usually built from wood, which has to be collected nearby. A high and continuous inflow of people has to be met with the building of housing as well as other infrastructure, straining the resources around the camp.
  4. Safety dimension: Camps are usually in inhospitable locations. More time spent outside the camps increases vulnerability to physical assault and theft, landmines, animals and gender-based violence, all severe problems and deterrents to firewood collection. According to a survey[7] conducted 1993 in Dadaab camp, one out of twenty surveyed families admitted to having a relative that was raped - but most of the attacks are kept in silence.
  5. Economic dimension: The more time women have to spend collecting fuel for their households, the less time is left for entertainment, agricultural and income-generating activities or possibilities to increase status in household and community.
  6. Environmental dimension: Another problem arising from deforestation is general environmental degradation of the land – erosion, floods, mud slides and especially declining ground water supply. The resulting problems fall on camp management and refugees, which already struggle with restricted natural resources and arable land.
  7. Potential for conflict dimension: The native population surrounding camps suffers equally from deforestation and consequential problems. National or regional authorities have often intervened to ban firewood collection for refugees, but when these are not given alternative income-generating activities, there is no other option but to collect firewood illegally[8]. This causes a worsening of local conflict and arrests, even threats to shut down the camps themselves.

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Cooking Energy Interventions

What type of intervention is needed largely depends on background of the humanitarian crisis. The IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee) distinguishes activities needed for cooking energy interventions in acute emergencies and those for protracted crises, transition and durable solutions.

-> IASC (2009) Matrix on Agency Roles and Responsibilites for Ensuring a Coordinated, Multi-Sectoral Fuel Strategy in Humanitarian Settings

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Cooking Energy in Immediate Relief Efforts

In the case that interventions have to be immediate, as after a natural disaster or directly after an inflow of refugees to a given location, aid organisations are often quick to respond, attracted by high media coverage, donor funds and the possibility to reach a great amount of people. Indeed, this is also where the biggest amount of funding is needed.

Initially, the health, shelter and food security dimensions take prevalence. Food will probably need to be directly supplied in the short term, possibly pre-cooked. Fuel interventions are only necessary in specific locations. However, cooking energy measures should not be neglected at this stage.

Camp design to facilitate, for example, shared cooking, can only be introduced at this phase of the intervention. During construction, the fewest possible trees should be cut, and energy access already controlled.

OFDA suggests[9] fuel efficient stove programs are only worthwhile if the emergency situation is expected to last more than 12 months, as a successful program cannot be designed and implemented momentarily. It therefore, does not include ICS in interventions expected to last a shorter period of time. However, dissembled cookstoves could also be imported directly in the first few months, allowing for greater numbers and ensuring a high quality product. Which fuel these cookstoves are based on depends on location and availiability. It is likely that institutional improved cookstoves can play a big role ensuring food provision during this time.

In the case of protracted crises, interventions have to focus more on being environmentally and economically sustainable.

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Cooking Energy in Sustainable Interventions

Three main approaches can improve the lack of appropriate energy supply in refugee situation, which are non-exclusive, and should be realized complementary. One is to reduce the amount of firewood needed to cook a certain meal. Another is to work on making the harvest of fuels sustainable. The third one is to supply alternative fuels and cooking technologies.

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Reduce Firewood Demand

There are three main ways to reduce the demand for firewood in wood-based cooking: introducing improved cookstoves, promoting central/shared cooking, and improving kitchen management. Improved cookstoves designs and adaptations vary according to what is demanded in an individual region or for a specific income group, and cookstoves have demonstrated their worth many times over the last decades. Stoves, like the Mandeleo stove in Dadaab, often save around 40% of fuelwood consumption[10].

In refugee camps where families have no income, improved cookstoves are sometimes distributed for free, although a better way can be to introduce stove for work programmes. These are programmes where individuals work a specific number of hours, often doing environmentally sound activities like planting trees, in order to be rewarded with an improved cookstove. A vital factor is the psychology of replacing unemployment with working for the aim of an improved life, Mandeleo, for example, means progress[11].

To get a sustainable supply of improved cookstoves, the more technical combustion chamber can be imported externally and then supplied with a clay or metal housing on location. This is likely to provide a more efficient product than complete on-site manufacture by largely untrained personnel. An unfortunate, but often significant trade-off is that between empowerment and self-sufficiency of the community to produce cookstoves and that of a high quality product.

-> More on improved cookstoves: (Improved Cookstoves and Energy Saving Cooking Equipment, BMZ / GIZ - Cooking is life)

A second way to reduce firewood consumption is to introduce central or shared cooking. This in no way contradicts using improved cookstoves, in fact there are many models of institutional cookstoves for cooking greater amounts of food. Often, due to improved heat transfer options, institutional stoves save relatively more firewood than improved cooking stoves for household use. Community cooking simply suggests several households cooking together to save energy. However, this is hard to introduce into a community, where families prefer to cook according to their individual taste and income level - those refugees that may have brought valuables or livestock will have different eating habits to those solely dependent on hand-outs.

The third and complementary solution is to use other energy efficiency techniques in general kitchen management and more specifically for firewood. With camps expanding from a refugee influx, there is a possibility to integrate improved kitchen design into the new houses. New pots can be introduced from the inception, and a high population density should allow for the quick spread of efficient cooking techniques and products. Especially heat retention devices may facilitate the care of sick or injured refugees that can only eat small portions, keeping food warm for prolonged periods to avoid the work of re-cooking several times a day.

-> General Kitchen Management Practices

-> Heat Retainers - Thermos Flasks and Fireless Cookers
-> Firewood Management Techniques
-> USAID: Fuel-Efficient Stove Programs in Humanitarian Settings: An Implementer’s Toolkit

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Increase Firewood Supply

A simple reduction in firewood consumption does not necessarily ensure sustainability, especially in overcrowded areas such as refugee camps. Less consumption reduces the pressure on wooden resources at a given time, but this does not necessary mean stability. The scale is important - stability can exist if only as much wood is demanded as supply increases.

The establishment of greenbelts, or plans to do so, has become prevalent in refugee situations. Other options are to plant trees between houses or tree nurseries in fenced-off areas. Such programmes can be combined with the sale of improved cookstoves in stove-for-work initiatives or people are reimbursed financially. Trees can also have intangible positive effects on refugees, such as the pleasure of seeing something of colour or avoiding the burning sun in a tree’s cool shade.

The programmes vary according to location, and often include different types of trees – pigeonpea plants, for example, can provide fuel while at the same time decreasing consumption of firewood by producing a nutritional alternative to the usual staple foods.

-> More on Pigeonpea Plants (page 57 onwards)

-> Woodfuel Production Options

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Use of Alternative Fuels

Since firewood is running out around camps, the most straightforward solution may be to change to alternatives. There is a large variety of alternative fuels available for cooking, though not all of the options are economically, socially and environmentally feasible. They range from using briquettes from biomass waste up to solar cookers.

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Briquettes are dried, carbonated and compressed residues from agriculture and forestry. They have the advantage of being very easy to use, quantify and store, and emit up to 40% less carbon dioxide than firewood[12]. In addition, small-scale briquette production can provide many new individual jobs. However, this only works if there is a large amount of biomass waste available and used to produce high quality fuel; in practice none of the briquette versions has proven to be sufficiently efficient or sustainable for widespread promotion.

-> Further Reading: Cooking with Agricultural Residues

-> Micro-Gasification: Cooking with gas from Biomass Manual
-> Micro-Gasification: Cooking with gas from Biomass Manual

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Liquefied Petroleum Gas, even though a fossil fuel, is a very convenient and clean burning fuel. Many households in developing countries wish to cook with LPG, but cannot afford it. This problem of affordability and unreliable supply chains is not different in refugee camps. Through corruption and crime, not all of a wagonload of LPG will arrive at the camp, and many poor households will sell their LPG ration for food. The proportion sold outside the camp can reach 80%[13].

Although some aid organisations may be willing to supply LPG and even cookstoves, this is likely to be unreliable, costly, and thus unsustainable once funding runs out. The situation is similar with kerosene-based cooking.

-> More on LPG as a cooking fuel

-> More on LPG stoves and the cooking system

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Solar Cookers

Solar cookers are a heatedly debated technology, but become more relevant in the fuel-lacking environment of long-term refugee camps. The slow cooking speed, threat of theft, major change of cooking habits, and discomfort of cooking in the sun may all be put up with in order to save firewood, especially if the cookers are subsidized or offered free of charge.

In very few cases supporters of this technologies claim that it works as a standalone solution, as only certain foods can be cooked with solar cookers and market introduction has often failed. However, it may work as an addition to biomass-based cooking, where for example the staple food, such as rice, is cooked under the sun while accompaniments are prepared more traditionally. Solar cookers are also a good option for boiling water for tea. A study[14] on solar cookers applied in the Idrimi refugee camp in Chad states that more than half of girls and women do not collect firewood anymore due to the use of solar cookers.

However a different study[15], made in Osire refugee camp, Namibia, found that despite possible fuel savings of 40%, only about 10% of households with solar cookers used these regularly, instead cooking with the little kerosene provided. When an aid organisation provided additional firewood, this number declined further.

In addition, solar cookers cannot be hidden, making users vulnerable to theft and unwanted dinner guests, custom dictating hospitability to strangers.

-> More on solar cooking (Cooking with the Sun, GIZ - Options for Using Solar Cookers in Developing Countries)

There are no silver bullets to the cooking energy crisis in refugee camps. Different fuels may be suitable in different situations, but every intervention has to be planned with great care.

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There are several recurrent challenges faced by programmes in refugee camps. Lack of material, continued reliance on biomass, coordination challenges, lack of funds and inadequate infrastructure are some of the problems encountered by refugee management projects. Also see: this article

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Short-Term Project Planning

Refugee camp programmes are often planned for short periods of time; often only for half a year at a time, which makes it difficult to launch sustainable projects, to partner with other organisations or to receive funding. Most aid organisations are focused on immediate relief efforts and stay clear of intensive, sustainable solutions, as power structures and political agendas for camps are often unclear. On top of this, national governments are often not willing to support sustainable refugee camps to reduce the incentive for people to stay.

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Coordination Challenges

In many refugee camps, a large number of aid organisations each have their own separate operations and ideals. There is a lack of common policy for cooperation on specific aspects of camp management, such as the provision of fuel. For example, a sudden delivery of cooking fuel or food as emergency relief by one organisation can severely disrupt a more long-term intervention by another.

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High Population Growth

A high population growth and constant inflow of people is a challenge in the sense that programmes have to be designed on a large scale and with an increase in capacity over time. In Dadaab, Kenya, the improved cookstove programme faced severe problems replacing broken stoves in addition to having to produce additional stoves for thousands of incoming refugee households.

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Lack of Infrastructure

Lack of infrastructure is one of the major problems in refugee camps. Roads in and out of camps are often on-existent, making both the provision of goods and material for manufacture very difficult. In some cases roads might improve with time, in others, especially when camps are located in conflict areas, they may not. This deters aid organisations from sending their workers or supply shipments, and local threats deter refugees from leaving the campsite for planting trees or agriculture.

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Environmental Challenges

Another problem is that even if fuelwood consumption is decreased significantly, often the demand still exceeds the production capacities of the ecosystem. Reductions of 40% through the use of different cooking instruments and techniques are often not enough. Reforestation, sustainable forest planning and management are necessary, but hard and very costly to implement.

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Lack of Alternative Jobs

When fuelwood collection is prohibited or regulated, this takes away the jobs of many refugees. People will need alternative ways of generating income. These traditionally included beer brewing or manufacturing bricks, both of which need a great amount of fuel. Other viable alternatives have to be found, and cookstove manufacturing or planting trees are unlikely to provide enough work. If there are not enough ways to generate income, distributed fuel and stoves are sold on the market to satisfy other basic needs.

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Case Studies[16]

- need to be udpated -


In Darfur, Sudan, the WFP began its comprehensive SAFE approach in 2010, and established 33 fuel-efficient training centres in the area to support 200 000 households. This approach entails several parts: fuel-efficient stoves in combination with alternative fuel options as well as the creation of livelihood options and establishment of tree nurseries.

The programme introduced the production of fuel-efficient stoves from locally made products. Regular training sessions built the capacity of communities in making and maintaining the new stoves. The WFP also introduced 1600 fire fuel briquetting units to communities to supply an alternative fuel.

Food for work programmes were created for the establishment of 33 community tree nurseries with 750 000 trees for three purposes: firewood supplying trees, fruit trees, and income generating trees. Other training programmes include agricultural practices, literacy training and handicraft promotion.

This multi-dimensional, community-oriented approach has great potential to sustainable success, and the WFP aims to hand over the programme to the government in 2-4 years. However, even though fuel-efficient stoves require less fuel and briquettes are offered as an alternative, demand still outstrips supply and environmental depletion is continuing. The WFP is increasing focus on reforestation and working on decreasing firewood use.

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In Haiti, the earthquake of January 2010 left many people in need of short-term aid. Its high media coverage led to an outpour of aid from various organisations, many of which quickly changed focus. Most of the NGOs still active focus on immediate relief efforts, or promote a specific solution, and lack coordination for a longer-term strategy.

Before the earthquake, the majority of urban Haitians used charcoal as cooking energy, while rural Haitians almost exclusively relied on firewood. With the earthquake, the minority that used gas or electricity had to switch to charcoal, the only fuel available, of which the price consequently increased. Fuelwood shortages, especially around camps, worsened.

The WFPs SAFE programme has promoted the switch from charcoal to briquette stoves in institutional school kitchens. The current predominance of charcoal is more expensive and of greater harm to the environment, so the initiative has equipped schools with new stoves and a briquette production chain, and is currently working on developing a local stove design that is easily replicable. This holistic approach that includes all of the production chain can ensure sustainability. So far, 200 000 people have benefited from this project.

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Extra: WFP-SAFE Programme

The World Food Programme’s Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE) project was founded in 2009. Partners include the Women’s Refugee Commission, UNHCR, FAO, and UNEP. The GIZ has also contributed technical expertise and field experience from the inception of SAFE.

As of September 2012, the initiative has helped 1.6 million people in six countries, and aims to expand to other countries to reach a total of 6 million refugees. The approach is multi-dimensional, addressing protection, environment, health, nutrition, education and livelihoods.

In 2012, SAFE organized a workshop to summarize lessons learned and share experiences from six different field locations. It also launched a handbook, consolidating practical information and resources for programming. The key issues are the linkages between SAFE-issues and food security, an operational guide, promising practices and lessons learned, and reference material.

As a way forward, SAFE hopes to mainstream the programme into WFP operations with a more structured approach, a high level spokesman and improved funding strategy.

-> Link to WFP
-> Link to WFP Handbook on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE)

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Further Information

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This article was originally published by GIZ HERA. It is basically based on experiences, lessons learned and information gathered by GIZ cook stove projects. You can find more information about the authors and experts of the original “Cooking Energy Compendium” in the - GIZ HERA Cooking Energy Compendium Imprint.

  2. Dorp, M. van (2011) Energy needs in emergency response operations: policies and best practice. Boiling Point 2011 No. 59 pp. 16-18
  3. Gitau, Gerald Chege (2011).The GIZ Dadaab Household Energy Project. Presentation held during an improved cookstove colloquium at Nairobi Sarova Panafric on 7th June 2011
  4. Lyytinen, Eveliina (2009). UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research, Household energy in refugee and IDP camps:challenges and solutions for UNHCR. Research Paper No. 172.
  5. Habermehl, H. (1997) Benefits of Household Energy Measures in Refugee camps. GTZ
  6. GIZ DADAAB Household Energy Programme in Kenya (2011)
  7. Habermehl, H. (1997) Benefits of Household Energy Measures in Refugee camps. GTZ
  8. Lyytinen, Eveliina (2009). UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research, Household energy in refugee and IDP camps:challenges and solutions for UNHCR. Research Paper No. 172.
  9. USAID (2010) Fuel-efficient stove programs in humanitarian settings: an implementer's toolkit.
  10. GIZ DADAAB Household Energy Programme in Kenya (2011)
  11. Interview with Agnes Klingshirn 28.11.2012
  12. WFP (2012) WFP Handbook on Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy. WFP.
  13. Interview with Agnes Klingshirn 28.11.2012
  14. Urban, F. and Lind, J. (2010) Low carbon energy and conflict: A new agenda. HEDON Boiling Point. issue 59 — 2011
  15. GTZ-HERA (2007) Die Sonne bringt es an den Tag: Möglichkeiten zum Einsatz von Solarkochern in Entwicklungsländern. GTZ
  16. Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy. Background Reader to the WFP Workshop 20-21 Sept 2012

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