Why cooking fuels are a protection issue
People who work in the domain of access to cooking energy will know the shocking statistics: 3 billion people around the world, approximately 40% of the world’s population, depend on open fires or inefficient stoves to cook food. Exposure to smoke from fires used for cooking causes an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year, with indoor air pollution leading to chronic respiratory and heart diseases as well as injuries such as burns. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the harmful impacts of cooking with inefficient stoves and open fires in poorly ventilated spaces, as they typically bear the brunt of the immense effort required to procure firewood and prepare meals.
What might be less well known is that cooking over fires or inefficient stoves is also a massive contributor to climate change; the second largest, in fact, right after carbon dioxide (CO2). Burning fuels for cooking purposes emits a quarter of global black carbon emissions, according to the Clean Cooking Alliance. In addition, the harvesting of wood fuel – the only readily available fuel - for cooking is a significant source of deforestation and places a great strain on the environment, damaging ecosystems and leading to soil erosion.
Contexts of Forced Displacement
In contexts of forced displacement, the enormous challenge posed by lack of access to cooking fuels and efficient cook stoves is even more substantial. In addition to the harmful health effects, physical strain and the immense time burden, collecting firewood for cooking also poses an immense risk to the physical safety of refugees. Fuels are frequently not included in the in-kind aid distributions that refugees receive, leaving them to procure them on their own.
According to the Vulnerability and Essential Needs Assessment that was conducted by REACH, UNHCR, and WFP in Uganda in 2020, the predominant method of gaining access to primary cooking fuel is to collect it in nature in surrounding areas. This requires refugees, primarily women and girls, to leave the protected area of the camps and to walk far distances through arid, impoverished, often conflict-ridden areas. The risk of physical assault and gender-based violence is very high, with devastating consequences.
In addition, given that leaving the protected area is usually not permitted, refugees also risk punishment by law. However, not cooking is simply not an option as most foods need to be cooked before ingestion, leaving refugees with no choice but to face the risk and leave the protection of their camps. Many refugees also engage in trading food rations in exchange for fuels, which can lead to malnutrition and food insecurity.
Another serious consequence of the lack of fuels for refugees is that it creates tensions and potentially violent conflicts with neighboring host communities, who rely on the same woodlands for gathering scarce firewood. In addition, the increasingly arid land caused by deforestation leads to a lower water table. This in turn creates water shortages for the host community and their agricultural production. This problem is likely to be further exacerbated by increasing deforestation and wooded areas becoming more arid.
Lack of access to cooking fuels is thus not only a food security, health, environmental or economic issue. It is a fundamental protection matter in the context of forced displacement. Humanitarian agencies thus have the responsibility within their mandate on protection to address the topic of cooking energy and ensure that adequate measures are taken to provide cooking fuels.
But even measures such as distributing fuels or including funds for fuels in cash transfers do not solve the problem, because the supply of safe, renewable fuels is often very limited. Alternatives to unsustainably sourced wood fuel and charcoal are more expensive to produce and thus less affordable and competitive, even when they are available to refugees and hosts. Although a great variety of biomass resources are available that could be used to produce cooking fuels, the infrastructure and private actors to produce them at scale is often not in place. The development of local markets thus needs to be fostered in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of access to cooking fuels. In addition, the creation and strengthening of local value chains for cooking fuels harbors great potential for job creation.
ESDS plans to tackle this challenge by assessing the availability of appropriate biomass resources to produce cooking fuels at scale in its project settings. Based on this assessment, it aims to develop new business models and financing schemes for the local production of these fuels, involving local communities in the harvesting and production. This would improve the supply of safe, reliable cooking fuels, reducing the need to walk long distances to collect firewood and thereby reducing the physical strain and exposure to risks. It would also generate new work opportunities and make good use of available biomass resources.
In addition, charcoal briquette production from grass and harvest residues (which are currently being burned) is planned in the Gambella region. This briquetting plant will be operated through a Cooperative-Private Sector-NGO model, in which a host community cooperative which is supported by an NGO will harvest biomass residues and manage the production of briquettes on land and with harvest residues and grass that is supplied by investor farmers. This shall ensure that host communities who often suffer from the increased environmental degradation that follows a large influx of refugees are able to benefit from improved livelihood opportunities, as well as from an improved cooking fuel supply and from less environmental degradation along with the refugee communities.
ESDS seeks to collaborate with other organizations to explore available biomass resources and to find solutions involving local communities to produce renewable, affordable cooking fuels at scale. Humanitarian, development and private actors need to join forces to tackle this substantial challenge with innovative ideas, not only to reduce energy poverty and food insecurity, but to ensure the protection of refugees.
For more information about the ESDS project and its work on cooking fuels, please contact *****.