Energy access in emergency - success factors and obstacles in three Eastern African Countries. An evaluation of FAO energy projects in humanitarian settings

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A recent UN report on Key success factors and obstacles for FAO energy projects in humanitarian settings reviewed FAO’s energy-in-emergency work carried out through the Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) initiative. The programme focuses on countries’ energy needs in the context of emergencies and protracted crises to build resilient livelihoods in a sustainable manner. Implemented between 2014 and 2018, the programme supported more than 400 000 individuals in four types of activities: clean cooking, forest management, renewable energy in agri-food chains, and policy support in 14 countries.

Combining principles derived from FAO’s SAFE Framework and the FAO strategic objective to increase the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises, the report explores the energy access situation in humanitarian settings, its intersections with issues surrounding gender, conflict and natural resources and proposes tried and tested ways of ensuring communities have access to energy.

The interaction between climate, conflict, hunger, poverty and persecution creates increasingly complex emergencies. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2019, the number of people forcibly displaced due to war, conflict, persecution, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order had grown to 79.5 million, the highest number on record according to available data. Crisis-affected populations – including refugees, internally displaced and the communities hosting them – often have severely constrained access to fuel and energy for cooking, heating and lighting.

"Access to energy is vital for food security and is often highly constrained in emergencies and protracted crises. Lack of access to energy can expose people to a number of risks and challenges, including malnutrition, increased vulnerability to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. " explained FAO Natural Resources Officer and leader of FAO’s Energy Team, Olivier Dubois.

Energy Markets Challenges in Humanitarian Settings

The evaluation carried out in three case studies in Eastern African countries - Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan - paints a picture of the demand for energy and the energy services that are currently provided in the settlements reviewed, helping to draw a map of the challenges affecting the energy markets in humanitarian contexts.

In Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, most refugees and displaced persons rely on energy resources that are unsustainable and that pose high risks to their health and well-being. In particular, the lack of access to energy for cooking poses a high security risk for refugees and internally displaced people. Many households are highly dependent on firewood collected from areas around the settlements to supplement the fuel which they receive from humanitarian agencies or purchase through markets. Intense demand for this natural resource has led to the degradation of forests and conflicts with the host communities.

“The need to fulfil energy needs for household purposes is a key factor in the perpetuation of a disproportionate work burden for women, protection risks, conflict and tension, unsustainable livelihood activities and health risks. The FAO SAFE approach provides a multi-sectoral response these diverse challenges and contributes to resilience building in protracted crises”, said Dubois.

The most used cooking fuel in the three regions was firewood, which was the first priority fuel for 62 percent of households in South Sudan, 63 percent in Uganda, and 47 percent in Kenya. The second choice of cooking fuel was firewood for South Sudan and charcoal for Kenya and Uganda. The study found out that a switch to a cleaner fuel, or even to the second choice of cooking fuel would lead to a reduction in the cost of energy in each household.

Five key universal constraints, the intensity and impact of which varies from country to country, have been identified:

  • affordability
  • limited access to quality alternative energy product
  • market distortion
  • limited market knowledge
  • competition for limited biomass resources

The analysis carried out, together with a series of collaborative workshop webinars, led to the identification of options that could be built into innovative programming for energy access within the refugee settings in Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. These interventions are generally applicable in all three focus countries and could be deployed as standard operating procedures to guide FAO’s humanitarian energy programming.

A Market-based Approach

While indicating the need to build capacity for the development of a market ecosystem, the evaluation recommends a gradual shift towards facilitation as opposed to provision, by putting in place market-based programming which engages the private sector.

Moreover, findings show that there is still a large population of refugees and Internally displaced people IDPs that are yet to receive any form of modern energy services, but could effectively be reached through a market-based approach. Scaling up already piloted solutions, developed through a bottom-up approach which considers both refugees and host communities, would ensure that accountability for the acceptance and performance of energy interventions lies with local providers and implementers.

Multi-sectoral Collaboration and Community Involvement

Another crucial element for future programming should be an enhanced coordination and collaboration among stakeholders to discuss and establish suitable interventions on energy management, without forgetting that "the community has its solutions to energy needs”. The greatest need is to improve access to cleaner cooking and sometimes heating options. But what should also consider productive uses of energy along local food chains.

“What is highlighted by this study and what we have found is fundamental in ensuring access to sustainable energy, is the involvement of the refugee and host communities who will use it” added Olivier Dubois.

Sustainable Environment Management Preservation

Last but not least, the report stresses the need to prioritize the sustainable management of the natural environment. The extent of environmental degradation and loss of biomass resources that have occurred in and around refugee settlements over the past few years, can be attributed to the high demand for fuelwood coupled with inefficient cooking energy practices, and the high demand for wooden poles used for shelter construction.

Adoption of improved cooking solutions, reforestation efforts and support to local biomass producers to manage resources and produce fuels in a sustainable manner, are options that could address the need to halt biomass degradation.

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