Energy Access to Refugees

refugee-camp-energyThere is a strong link between the serious humanitarian situation of refugees and lack of access to sustainable energy resources. According to a 2015 UNCHR report, there are more than 65.3 million displaced people around the world, the highest level of human displacement ever documented. Access to clean and affordable energy is a prerequisite for sustainable development of mankind, and refugees are no exception. Needless to say, almost all refugee camps are plagued by fuel poverty and urgent measure are required to make camps livable.

Usually the tragedy of displaced people doesn’t end at the refugee camp, rather it is a continuous exercise where securing clean, affordable and sustainable energy is a major concern. Although humanitarian agencies are providing food like grains, rice and wheat; yet food must be cooked before serving. Severe lack of modern cook stoves and access to clean fuel is a daily struggle for displaced people around the world. This article will shed some light on the current situation of energy access challenges being faced by displaced people in refugee camps.

Why Energy Access Matters?

Energy is the lifeline of our modern society and an enabler for economic development and advancement. Without safe and reliable access to energy, it is really difficult to meet basic human needs. Energy access is a challenge that touches every aspect of the lives of refugees and negatively impacts health, limits educational and economic opportunities, degrades the environment and promotes gender discrimination issues. Lack of energy access in refugee camps areas leads to energy poverty and worsen humanitarian conditions for vulnerable communities and groups.

Energy Access for Cooking

Refugee camps receive food aid from humanitarian agencies yet this food needs to be cooked before consumption. Thus, displaced people especially women and children take the responsibility of collecting firewood, biomass from areas around the camp. However, this expose women and minors to threats like sexual harassments, danger, death and children miss their opportunity for education. Moreover, depleting woods resources cause environmental degradation and spread deforestation which contributes to climate change. Moreover, cooking with wood affects the health of displaced people.

Access to efficient and modern cook stove is a primary solution to prevent health risks, save time and money, reduce human labour and combat climate change. However, humanitarian agencies and host countries can aid camp refugees in providing clean fuel for cooking because displaced people usually live below poverty level and often host countries can’t afford connecting the camp to the main grid. So, the issue of energy access is a challenge that requires immediate and practical solutions. A transition to sustainable energy is an advantage that will help displaced people, host countries and the environment.

Energy Access for Lighting

Lighting is considered as a major concern among refugees in their temporary homes or camps. In the camps life almost stops completely after sunset which delays activities, work and studying only during day time hours. Talking about two vulnerable groups in the refugees’ camps “women and children” for example, children’s right of education is reduced as they have fewer time to study and do homework. For women and girls, not having light means that they are subject to sexual violence and kidnapped especially when they go to public restrooms or collect fire woods away from their accommodations.

Rationale For Sustainable Solutions

Temporary solutions won’t yield results for displaced people as their reallocation, often described as “temporary”, often exceeds 20 years. Sustainable energy access for refugees is the answer to alleviate their dire humanitarian situation. It will have huge positive impacts on displaced people’s lives and well-being, preserve the environment and support host communities in saving fuel costs.  Also, humanitarian agencies should work away a way from business as usual approach in providing aid, to be more innovative and work for practical sustainable solutions when tackling energy access challenge for refugee camps.

UN SDG 7 – Energy Access

The new UN SDG7 aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. SDG 7 is a powerful tool to ensure that displaced people are not left behind when it comes to energy access rights. SDG7 implies on four dimensions: affordability, reliability, sustainability and modernity. They support and complete the aim of SDG7 to bring energy and lightening to empower all human around the world. All the four dimensions of the SDG7 are the day to day challenges facing displaced people. The lack of modern fuels and heavy reliance on primitive sources, such as wood and animal dung leads to indoor air pollution.

Energy access touches every aspect of life in refugee camps

Energy access touches every aspect of life in refugee camps

For millions of people worldwide, life in refugee camps is a stark reality. Affordability is of concern for displaced people as most people flee their home countries with minimum possessions and belongings so they rely on host countries and international humanitarian agencies on providing subsidized fuel for cooking and lightening. In some places, host countries are itself on a natural resources stress to provide electricity for people and refugees are left behind with no energy access resources. However, affordability is of no use if the energy provision is not reliable (means energy supply is intermittent).

Parting Shot

Displaced people need a steady supply of energy for their sustenance and economic development. As for the sustainability provision, energy should produce a consistent stream of power to satisfy basic needs of the displaced people. The sustained power stream should be greater than the resulted waste and pollution which means that upgrading the primitive fuel sources used inside the camp area to the one of modern energy sources like solar energy, wind power, biogas and other off-grid technologies.

For more insights please read this article Renewable Energy in Refugee Camps 

Renewable Energy in Refugee Camps

dabaab-refugee-campAccess to clean and affordable energy is a prerequisite for sustainable development of mankind, and refugees are no exception. Refugee camps across the world house more than 65 million people, and almost all refugee camps are plagued by fuel poverty. Needless to say, urgent measure are required to make camps livable and sustainable.

Rapid advancements in renewable energy technologies have made it possible to deploy such systems on various scales.  The scalability potential of renewable energy systems makes them well-suited for refugee camps, especially in conflict-afflicted areas of the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Renewable energy in refugee camps can be made available in the form of solar energy, biomass energy and wind energy. Solar panels, solar cooking units, solar lanterns, biomass cookstoves and biogas plants are some of the popular renewable energy technologies that can improve living standards in refugee camps. It is important to focus on specific needs of refugees and customization of technology towards local conditions. For example, solar technologies are better understood than biogas systems in Jordan.

Solar Energy

Solar energy can provide long-term resilience to people living in refugee camps. With many camps effectively transformed into full-fledged towns and cities, it is essential to harness the power of sun to run these camps smoothly. Solar cookers, solar lanterns and solar water heaters are already being used in several refugee camps, and focus has now shifted to grid-connected solar power projects. The 5MW Azraq solar project is the world’s first grid-connected renewable energy project to be established in a refugee camp. The project is being funded entirely by Ikea through the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign. The program, now in its third year, seeks to improve the lives of refugees around the world by providing access to sustainable energy supplies.

Biomass Energy

Due to lack of land and resources, refugee camps puts tremendous pressure on natural vegetation, especially supply of fuel wood to camp-dwellers. Replacement of traditional stoves with efficient biomass-fired cook stoves can save as much as 80% of cooking fuel. Instead of wood, it would be also be a good option to use agricultural wastes, like husk and straw. Another interesting proposition for refugee camps is to set up small-scale DIY biogas plants, based on human wastes and food residuals. The biogas produced can be used as a cooking medium as well as for power/heat generation.

Wind Energy

Small wind turbines can also play a key role in providing energy to dwellers of refugee camps. Such turbines are used for micro-generation and can provide power from 1kW to 300kW. Majority of small wind turbines are traditional horizontal axis wind turbines but vertical axis wind turbines are a growing type of wind turbine in the small wind market. Small wind turbines are usually mounted on a tower to raise them above any nearby obstacles, and can sited in refugee camps experiencing wind speeds of 4m/s or more.

Solar lights in Azraq Refugee Camp (Jordan)

Solar lights in Azraq Refugee Camp (Jordan)

Conclusions

Renewable energy systems have the potential to improve living standards in refugee camps and ease the sufferings of displaced and impoverished communities. Solar panels, biogas system, biomass stoves and micro wind turbines are some of the renewable energy systems that can be customized for refugee camps and transform them into a less harsh place for displaced people.

Plastic Wastes and its Management

Plastic seems all pervasive and unavoidable. Since the 1960s our use of plastic has increased dramatically, and subsequently, the portion of our garbage that is made up of plastic has also increased from 1% of the total municipal solid waste stream (household garbage) to approximately 13% (US Environmental Protection Agency). Plastic products range from things like containers and packaging (soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles) to durable goods (think appliances, furniture and cars) and non-durable goods including things from a plastic party tray to medical devices. Sometimes marked with a number and a chasing arrow, there is an illusion that all plastics are recyclable, and therefore recycled. But there are a number of problems with this assumption.

While use and consumption of plastic is increasingly high, doubts about viable options for reuse, recycling and disposal are also on the rise. Complications such as the increasing number of additives used alter the strength, texture, flexibility, colour, resistance to microbes, and other characteristics of plastics, make plastics less recyclable. Additionally, there is very little market value in some plastics, leading municipalities to landfill or incinerate plastics as waste. Based on figures from the EPA (2011 data) only 8% of plastic materials are recovered through recycling.

Another major concern about plastics in the waste stream is their longevity and whether or not they are truly biodegrade. It is estimated that most plastics would take 500-1000 years to break down into organic components. Because of this longevity and the low rate of recycling, much of our plastic waste ends up in landfills or as litter. Some of this plastic waste makes its way via rivers and wind to the ocean. Garbage barges, and the trans-continental transport of recyclable materials also lead to an increasing amount of plastics in our oceans and waterways.

Plastic waste directly and indirectly affects living organisms throughout the ecosystem, including an increasingly high impact on marine life at a macro and micro scale. According to United Nations, almost 80% of marine debris is plastic. Policy enforcement remains weak, global manufacture of plastics continues to increase, and the quantity of plastic debris in the oceans, as well as on land, is likely to increase.

With limited sustainable recovery of plastics, there is a growing global movement to reduce the generation of plastic. Certain types of plastic may be ’safer‘ for the environment than others, however, there are troubling issues associated with all of them, leading to the conclusion that action is needed to remove plastic waste, and stricter controls are required to limit new sources of plastic pollution. Efforts such as light weighting of packaging and shifts to compostable plastics are options. Policies limiting the use of plastics such as bottle bills and bag bans are other ways to decrease the production and consumption of plastics.

Mining the debris fields in our oceans and turning plastic waste into usable materials, from socks made of fishing line to fuel made from a variety of plastic debris, is one way to mitigate the current situation.

Note: This excerpt is being published with the permission of our collaborative partner Be Waste Wise. The original excerpt and its video recording can be found at this link

Bioplastics: Making an Informed Decision

bioplasticsPlastics are regarded by some as one of the greatest human inventions and continue to benefit society in more ways than one. However these benefits come at a high environmental cost as research has shown that “over 300 million metric tons of plastics are produced in the world annually and about 50% of this volume is for disposable applications, products that are discarded within a year of their purchase”.

About 50 percent of all plastics produced worldwide are disposed of within one year of being manufactured; now that is a critically important statistic when plastics have been known to have life spans over 500 years.  Infact, this is the main reason behind massive waste accumulation of plastics in landfills, drainage systems, water bodies etc. Moreover, plastic’s destruction is evident when in 2009, it was reported that an estimated 150 million tons of fossil fuels were consumed for the production of plastics worldwide.  Given all of these facts, it is no surprise that the pervasive use of non-biodegradable plastics has provoked many environmental and health concerns, especially in developing countries where plastic is often disposed of in unauthorized dumping sites or burned uncontrollably.

One result of this broadening awareness of the global plastic waste problem and its impact on the environment is the development of bioplastics.  Bioplastics are based on biomass derived from renewable resources and are in many cases more environmentally friendly than traditional petroleum based plastics. Currently, numerous types of bioplastics are under development, the most popular being “Polylactides, Polyglycolic acids, Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), aliphatic polyesters, polysaccharides”.

Basic Concepts and Misconceptions

Overall, in the Plastics Industry Trade Association’s 2012 Bioplastics Industry Overview Guide, it is stated that bioplastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable play an important role in further advancing the plastic industry as a whole.  Incredibly essential to note, is that within the above statement, it states, the importance of bioplastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable.  This statement implys that not all bioplastics are biodegradable and/or bio-based.  In fact, according to a 2011 industry report, there are many characteristics such as degradable, biodegradable, bio-based and compostable that are used to describe bioplastics. However, not every bioplastic is comprised of all of these features.  According to the report, this remains a common misconception as the public at large still lacks a clear understanding of the various bioplastic related terms.  For instance, it is commonly thought of that the terms bio-based and biodegradable are interchangeable. However not all bio-based plastics will degrade naturally. In fact, “many bio-based products are designed to behave like traditional petroleum-based plastic, and remain structurally intact for hundreds of years”.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines biodegradable plastics as a plastic in which all the organic carbon can be converted into biomass, water, carbon dioxide, and/or methane via the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, in timeframes consistent with the ambient conditions of the disposal method (Compostable Plastics 101). This definition implies that there is a specific timeframe for the biodegradation to take place and merely fragmenting into smaller pieces, even if microscopic, does not make a material biodegradable.  This definition is commonly confused with the term degradable which is a broader term given to polymers or plastics that simply break down by a number or means, such as physical disintegration, chemical disintegration and biodegradation by natural mechanisms. After degradation, a degradable plastic can still remain in a smaller or fragmented form unlike that of a biodegradable plastic, which needs to completely biodegrade into water, carbon dioxide and/or methane. This distinction between terms results in polymers that are degradable but not biodegradable.

Another term that is commonly found to describe bioplastics is ‘compostable’. Compostable is defined by ASTM as “a plastic that undergoes biological degradation during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leaves no visually distinguishable or toxic residues”. While the ASTM has specific standards for a plastic to be compostable such as biodegradation, eco-toxicity, and disintegration, the main difference between a plastic being compostable versus biodegradable is the rapid rate at which biodegradation, eco-toxicity, and disintegration occur. Therefore, in theory, all compostable plastics are biodegradable however, not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.

Finally, probably the most often confused term regarding bioplastics is the label, “bio-based”.  As defined by the US Department of Agriculture, the term “bio-based” refers to solely the raw materials of the plastic. According to the Department of Agriculture, bio-based materials that are those that are “composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials or forestry materials”. Since the majority, not all, of the materials have to be renewable, many bio-based plastics combine both petroleum-based materials with naturally based ones. For this reason, some researchers have suggested that a bio-based material may not technically be a sustainable product. Therefore, while the two terms are somewhat related, whether or not a product is bio-based is not an independent indicator of whether it is biodegradable.

Making an Informed Decision

This lack of understanding between the terms is a large issue that does not get much recognition.  Consumers are increasingly buying more and more bioplastics but are not fully being educated on the differences between the various different types of bioplastics on the markets. While as a whole, bioplastics may have many notable attributes making them excellent alternatives to traditional plastics, they are not considered flawless solutions. Some bioplastics encompass all of the above qualities while others may only hold one or two of these characteristics; meaning that there is a vast disparity between how environment-friendly different bioplastics might actually be.

Consumers often see the term bioplastic or a bio-based plastic and automatically assume that it will breakdown into the soil like leaves or grass once it is disposed of, when as discussed, this is often not the case. All in all, given the significant differences between the terms, it is very important for consumers to know that “bio-based,” “biodegradable” and “compostable” are individual attributes and be educated on what these characteristics actually mean. It is equally important for manufacturers to be educated on these differences and make proper labeling of their bioplastic products.

References

Bioplastics. (n.d.) Retrieved from this link

California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). (2013, December 10).

Biobased and degradable plastics in california. Retrieved from  this link

California Organics Recycling Council. (2011). Compostable plastics 101. Retrieved from this link

Confused by the terms biodegradable & biobased. (n.d.). Retrieved from this link

Divya, G., Archana, T., & Manzano, R. A. (2013). Polyhydroxy alkanoates – A sustainable alternative to petro-based plastics. Petroleum & Environmental Biotechnology, 4(3), 1-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2157-7463.1000143

Liu, H-Y. (2009). Bioplastics poly(hydroxyalkanoate) production during industrial wastewater treatment. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3362495)

Niaounakis, M. (2013). Biopolymers: Reuse, recycling, and disposal. Waltham, MA: William Andrew Publishing.

North, E. J., & Halden, R. U. (2013). Plastics and environmental health: the road ahead. Reviews on Environmental Health, 28(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2012-0030

The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (2012, April). Bioplastics Industry Overview Guide. Retrieved from this link

United States Department of Agriculture. (2006). Federal biobased products preferred procurement program. Retrieved from this link