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Student essay: Energy and refugees

Posted by Arjendu on June 4, 2016

As part of my intro course on physics of energy I asked students to look at something in the ‘real world’ through the lens of energy — I’d just gotten through an extended discussion on the correlation between GDP and energy consumption, etc, etc, and wanted them to practice seeing the hidden role of energy in so many things we think are actually about something else. I’m planning to post some of the better ones (as I get permission for them). Here’s one, unedited:

Energy at the Heart of the Refugee Crisis
Rebecca Fairchild

With the prevalence of media and news sources, it feels nearly impossible to remain ignorant to the severity of the global refugee crisis. When considering the situation, factors such as political systems, systematic violence, racist immigration policies and health care concerns immediately come to mind. For this assignment, I chose to investigate one factor that is frequently overlooked that plays an extremely prominent role in the plight of refugees- energy and energy access. According to one study conducted by Stanford University, there are approximately 60 million refugees and 80% of these people are without easy or reliable access to electricity. As a result of the scarcity of electrical power, people rely on sources of fuel such as coal, diesel and wood that are dangerous, unsustainable and pose significant risks to their health and safety.
The Daabad refugee camp in Kenya (home to many people fleeing from southern Sudan) is a very illuminating example of the economic implications of relying on unclean forms of energy. At this camp, families spend $17.20 per month on diesel fuel which is equivalent to 25% of their monthly income. In comparison, families in many European countries spend about 4% of their income on energy. In total, the cost of supplying diesel fuel to this one camp is 2.3 million dollars each year. These numbers can be extrapolated to a global scale with staggering results. In total, refugee camps spend 2.1 billion dollars supplying fuel to refugees and consume the equivalent of 3.9 million tons of oil in doing so. Much of the energy that is used in these camps goes to cooking food and fueling lanterns. In fact, the consumption of oil in these two activities has lead to a yearly output of 6.85 million tons of carbon dioxide by refugee camps.

The use of diesel oil as a power source is supplemented by wood, which poses equally significant environmental implications. Combined the amount of wood that is harvested for fuel by people in refugee camps has lead to the loss of 64,700 acres of forest loss per year. It is important to note that the majority of refugee camps are located in countries that already are facing enormous environmental crises with regards to deforestation and pollution. The compounded practices of refugees and citizens in these countries have lead to the contamination and loss of streams and water sources (water access is also a significant problem in many of these countries) and the severe loss of habitat and subsequent endangerment of many species.

On top of the environmental implications, the current sources of energy used by refugee camps pose enormous risks to refugees health and safety, specifically for women and children. The lack of electricity available in the refugee camps makes for streets that are poorly lit at night. As a result, children and women are placed at a high risk of rape or abduction when they must leave their house (to go to the bathroom etc) at night. Similarly, due to traditional gender roles within many of these camps, women and children are expected to collect the wood for fuel in the woods. In doing so, many fall victim to sexual predators. In one refugee camp, a counseling service reported that 500 women and children were raped collecting firewood within a five month span. The number was likely much much higher though, because collecting wood is illegal, and women were afraid to report cases for fear of legal retribution. Furthermore, the process of collecting the wood is a lengthy undertaking and makes it hard for children to find time to study and participate in education, thus furthering the cycle of poverty and lack of education in camps. Even when fuel is gathered safely, utilizing these forms of fuel is often highly dangerous. Annually, 20,000 deaths per year are reported due to fires from cooking, dangerous fumes and ingestion of diesel (diesel is often kept in water bottles which is confusing to young children). I found these reports entirely appalling and am questioning why there is not more of a push from medical organizations to restructure energy access as a means of dealing with some of these medical and safety concerns.

One proposal to helping deal with the energy crisis in these refugee camps is implementing clean energy sources in the camps. In particular, it has been proposed to instal solar grids to supply electricity to the camps. One factor that has barred many camps from doing this is the large capital required to implement such systems. It has been calculated that the cost of implementing such a system would be a 335 million dollar one time investment. In the long run, it is suggested that the installation of such systems would save $223 million. Humanitarian aid organizations are run on rolling donations, which makes access to this degree of economic capital nearly impossible. Furthermore, many countries are resistant to installing such systems because, in doing so, they are forced to acknowledge that the refugee settlement will be fairly permanent. Nonetheless, The Azraq refugee camp is planning to implement a solar power system. It is projected to cost 10 million dollars to instal, but, since the camp pays $800,000 monthly in energy costs, it is projected to pay for itself in anywhere from two to four years. This signals towards the economic viability of green energy within refugee camps.
Personally, I am very compelled by the argument to move towards green energy within the refugee camps. From the evidence gathered, it is clear that the current system is vastly insufficient and green energy, from what I can tell, will provide a consistent form of energy that will make great strides in many of the adverse conditions that refugees face. Beyond this, I believe that the movement to instal such systems will lay a precedent globally and provide concrete examples to support the feasibility of relying on green sources of power.

Works Cited
Leach, Anna. “Clean Energy in Refugee Camps Could save Millions of Dollars.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.
Okoo, Sarah. “Why Kenya Can’t Ignore Energy Crisis in Refugee Camps.” Business Daily. N.p., 12 Jan. 2016. Web.
Pyper, Julia. “Solar Power to Light Up Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan.” Green Technology. Grid Edge World Forum, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.
Sorrel, Charlie. “How Using Clean Energy In Refugee Camps Could Prevent Rape and Save Children.” Co.Exist. N.p., 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 May 2016.

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