UNEP DTU conducts first ever cost-benefit analysis of energy use in refugee camps

October 26, 2017

At UNEP DTU Partnership, we have been researching rural energy use in developing countries since the early 1990s. Working with governments and small businesses, we seek out opportunities for switching from problematic fuels like wood to cleaner and safer forms of energy, like sustainable charcoal, briquettes and bottled Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG). Recently, we have been collaborating with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in their effort to push energy up to the top of the humanitarian agenda.

Energy use is a crisis issue in many refugee camps. In sub-Saharan Africa, competition for wood fuel has become a source of conflict between increasingly large refugee populations and local communities. Refugee women, who walk as far as 20km in search of wood, often bear the brunt of this hostility, becoming walking targets for violence.

Economic cost-benefit studies are a useful means to convince the international community to invest in alternative fuels for these camps. To this end, UDP gathered primary data on energy use in the Nyarugusu camp in western Tanzania, home to 140,000 people from neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We conducted surveys of 500 households in the camp. The data we collected showed that households spent 19hrs per week, on average, to gather fuel. Seventeen percent said they bartered food rations and other basic necessities for wood or charcoal. Fifty-one percent spent an average of 25,246 Tanzanian shillings (12 USD) on wood fuel, which is approximately 50% of the reported average incomes.

A switch to cleaner LPG would improve both health and quality of life in the camps, and UNHCR secured funding to supply 3,000 households with this technology for a 3-month period in early 2017. The LPG pilot project had an almost 100% adoption rate and 95% of households stated a willingness to pay for LPG, indicating the high value they place on this cleaner technology. Our research also found that men are more willing to help cook when households switched to gas, adding to the growing evidence that moving up the ‘energy ladder’ has parallel positive impacts on gender roles.

By far, the greatest beneficiaries of the switch from wood fuel to LPG are women and children. By making an economic case for investing in alternative fuels in refugee camps, our work will help guide decision making in humanitarian agencies, giving them solid reasons to promote safer and cleaner fuels for these at-risk populations.