Clean Energy Challenge: A green solution for humanitarian crises

Caption: Solar pumping water scheme in Bidibidi Settlement, Uganda, serves over 30,000 refugees and hosting population. Credit: UNHCR

UNHCR’s Clean Energy Challenge aims to bring affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to all settlements of forcibly displaced people and nearby host communities by 2030.

Electricity, cooking fuel, and other types of energy are among the needs of the more than 134 million people around the globe who require humanitarian assistance. For most, especially those living in rural settlements, finding reliable, clean, and sustainable energy is a daily struggle. To save cooking fuel they may undercook or skip meals, or they may sell food rations to buy fuel. Women and girls often walk long distances to find firewood, increasing the chances they may be attacked or subject to sexual violence outside of the camp.

Why humanitarians care about clean energy now. Historically, providing sustainable and clean energy to those living and working in camps for people displaced by violence, floods, and other crises has not been seen as a humanitarian priority. There is little funding for it, and other more immediate needs - such as shelter and healthcare - take priority. Many humanitarian organisations themselves rely on fossil fuels - using diesel generators to run their operations. But as the sector increasingly responds to climate-related crises, there's a growing recognition that it needs to reduce its carbon footprint, and become part of a green solution.

A green solution. That's where the Clean Energy Challenge (CEC) - whose leaders met online last week with representatives from over 70 permanent missions to the UN - comes in. Launched at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum held in Geneva last year, the CEC's goal is to bring affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to all settlements of forcibly displaced people and nearby host communities by 2030.

The initiative - which includes businesses, aid groups, and organisations involved in clean energy and a secretariat based out of UNHCR in Geneva - acts a matchmaker of sorts. It links humanitarian programs with groups that can help them move toward clean energy by offering financial support, technology, training, logistics or advocacy.

“We see countries diversifying energy sources and trying to find clean and safe energy sources for their own populations,” said Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, UNHCR senior advisor on private sector partnerships. As the price of renewable energy drops, he added, “it's just a matter of time that this also extends to refugee populations. ”

If you're thinking this isn't a small undertaking, you're right. To meet that 2030 deadline, work toward clean energy needs to take place in three settlements each month for the next decade. That's according to Thomas Fohgrub, team leader for the UN's inter-agency Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy in Displacement Settings , a non-binding framework providing concrete steps to achieving the goal.

Covid-19 and energy. Reliable energy has become even more essential during the pandemic, to keep healthcare facilities running, provide enough water for personal hygiene, and ensure that radio stations, public messaging systems, and WiFi hotspots can run and provide access to information on public health issues.

Next steps. While the idea behind CEC has been welcomed by humanitarian groups and their donors, advocates caution that the hard work needed to meet the plan's goals can't let up. Action and partnership among host states and donors, humanitarian and development organizations, and the private sector must continue, Norwegian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Tine Mørch Smith said last week, noting the progress made since the CEC was launched. “We need to ensure that the Clean Energy Challenge ambition becomes integrated in humanitarian plans - that our work contributes to real impact for the displaced ,” she said.