Q&A: In search of cheaper, safer fuel for refugees

Erin Patrick of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women & Children discusses fuel safety and alternative energy in humanitarian settings.

Erin Patrick at a site for internally displaced people in Northern Darfur, Sudan.   © Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children

GENEVA, May 16 (UNHCR) - For refugees living in camps in countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sudan and Thailand, firewood is a vital resource that provides them with fire for cooking and heat for warmth. But its exploitation can cause environmental damage, while women and children who seek out firewood often put their safety at risk. Erin Patrick of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women & Children is an expert on the issue of safe fuel and energy in humanitarian settings. As coordinator of the commission's Fuel and Firewood Initiative since 2005, she has worked around the world, interviewing and conducting focus groups with hundreds of refugee and internally displaced women on their cooking fuel needs and preferences. Earlier this month, she flew to Geneva to attend the final meeting of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings. She took time to talk with UNHCR Associate Public Information Officer Cécile Pouilly. Excerpts from the interview:

Why are fuel and firewood so important in refugee situations?

The food that the World Food Programme [WFP] and its partners distribute to refugees and internally displaced people has to be cooked in order to be edible, which means that firewood or some sort of cooking fuel is a requirement. Everybody agrees that food is a necessity. If the food cannot be eaten without being cooked, then the fuel to cook that food is an equal necessity.

Tell us about the Fuel and Firewood Initiative

The Women's Commission launched the initiative about three years ago, following reports about the huge number of rapes and sexual assaults being committed in Darfur - particularly against women while they were out collecting firewood.

It was meant to be a relatively short project, but the more we researched the problem, the more we realized that - in addition to being a huge protection problem - it is also an environmental problem, a health problem, a livelihood problem. We realized that we needed much more effort and attention on the subject and that's when we really began the Fuel and Firewood Initiative and our efforts to get UN agencies like UNHCR and other partners involved.

Is it a global problem? What is the situation in most refugee camps?

In one way or another, it's a problem in all refugee camps. It's an environmental problem.... A constant concern for UNHCR and other environmental actors is that when a camp is in place for year after year, the circle of deforestation around the camp will inevitably continue to grow and grow.

It's also a health problem, in the sense that burning firewood and other biomass products indoors causes indoor air pollution, which leads to respiratory infections that kill more children every year than malaria. When you add all those different components - the sexual violence, physical assault, environmental devastation and health problems - then it is truly a significant problem in every refugee camp in the world.

Are the people who can help fully aware about the scale of the problem?

No, unfortunately I don't think so. The humanitarian community and the public at large are becoming more aware of the fact that it is a problem, but I don't think there is sufficient attention to it yet.

What kinds of technologies and products are you looking at?

There are many options, but there is no magic bullet fuel that would solve the health problems, the protection problems, the environmental problems in every single refugee camp in the world. What we've been finding is that often the best solutions are being developed outside of humanitarian settings. One of our tasks is to take these technologies and figure out if they are useful and how they can be adapted to the humanitarian sphere.

Some of the ideas we've been looking at include fuel-efficient stoves, which range from the most basic ones created from mud and animal waste to some really amazing devices that UNHCR and others have been promoting, like the Save 80 Stove [which uses smaller pieces of wood not traditionally collected and burned and can save up to 80 percent of the firewood normally used in the stoves used by refugees].

With the UNHCR office in Ethiopia, we've also been looking at a sugar cane molasses-based ethanol that is used with a clean cook stove in a project managed by a national NGO, the Gaia Association. This reduces the need to collect firewood and causes less indoor air pollution. And we've been looking at different types of solar cookers, including the very large, fast-cooking parabolic cookers used in the camps in Nepal and the simple cardboard models that are being promoted in Chad and elsewhere.

Do you face any resistance from people opposed to new technology?

It's incredibly important to hold discussions with beneficiaries before any new technology is introduced.... For people who have been uprooted and lost everything, the one thing they are left with, that reminds them of their life at home, is cooking and the family fire. We talk with the people to determine what their preference is and what their needs are. We talk about what they will and won't use and why, so that we can come up with a technology or fuel that meets as many of their needs and priorities as possible.

If that is completely impossible, then we try to introduce new technologies very slowly and build community support over time. That's how UNHCR and its partners in Nepal, for example, were able to introduce solar cookers. Lots of demonstrations were held, slowly building community support, always allowing that there would be another fuel option. This took place over years and such an approach is the only sustainable way to really change a population's fuel source.

Tell us more about the work of the Women's Commission

We focus on policy and advocacy solutions, specifically for refugee and internally displaced women and children. In addition to the work on fuel and firewood, we work on reproductive health, gender-based violence, youth and education. We also have projects in other areas, including protection, livelihoods, and detention and asylum.

We are not an operational organization. We don't have field offices. What we do is recognize particular gaps or particular problems that we see, that are specific to refugee women and children ... and conduct field missions to assess the problems on the ground and to meet with the victims and survivors of the problems we're evaluating. We put a huge emphasis on making sure that their voices are reflected in our work and in the solutions that we recommend.

You are here to attend the final meeting of the task force on safe access to firewood and alternative energy in humanitarian settings. Tell us more

The task force started in May 2007 with a one-year mandate. It began as an initiative from the Women's Commission. After initial research, we realized that addressing the question of fuel and firewood required a major inter-agency effort and, because of the multi-sectoral nature of the problem, we decided that we needed to have an inter-agency standing committee (IASC) task force. The IASC is the main humanitarian coordination body that involves the UN, NGOs and the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement.

The task force is co-chaired by UNHCR, WFP and the Women's Commission.... We focus on eight issue areas where there is a very clear and strong linkage to fuel: protection/gender-based violence; environment; health; food and nutrition; food security; development and livelihoods; shelter; information, education and communication; and camp coordination and management.

We're working on three main outputs and we want to make sure that they are practically oriented and geared towards the field. The first output of the task force is a matrix on the role and responsibilities of agencies for ensuring a coordinated multi-sectoral fuel strategy in humanitarian settings.

Our second output is a decision-tree diagram on the factors that affect the choice of a fuel strategy in a specific setting. We are targeting field actors, like site planners, camp managers - people who are the first responders and who will be tasked with developing a fuel strategy: Do we use firewood? Do we promote fuel efficient stoves? Do we bring kerosene from an outside source?

The last output of the task force is the International Network on Household Energy in Humanitarian Settings, which is an informal web-based network open to local and international NGOs, UN agencies, research institutes - basically anybody that has an interest in this issue. There is no set requirement for becoming a member, you can use it entirely for your own benefit to get the technical information or to share your own work and experiences with the issue. We welcome all those who are interested in helping solve this critical problem.