1. Define challenges
Light, a basic need
Access to lighting and power has not traditionally been addressed as a basic need in humanitarian refugee assistance. But gradually this is changing. Over the last years the humanitarian sector has become increasingly aware that without access to artificial light, simple activities like using the bathroom, collecting water, or meeting friends after nightfall become difficult for refugees living in camps. In places like Azraq Camp in Jordan, where snakes, scorpions, and packs of wild dogs roam, they can even be dangerous.
Azraq Camp lies in the Jordanian desert some 100 kilometers east of the capital, Amman. Opened in late April 2014, the camp is currently home to approximately 55,000 Syrian refugees. Most of its inhabitants originate from middle-income backgrounds in Syria, where they lived in homes wired for electricity.
What they had to leave behind was very different from Azraq Camp. In Azraq, families live in shelters made of steel and zinc – dubbed a T-shelter. These T-shelters are organized in clusters of twelve, referred to as plots, with a bathroom located at the end of each plot. The shelters were not wired for electricity. Nor were there streetlamps in Azraq when the camp first opened. After nightfall, the streets and paths in the camp would fall into darkness, making women and girls in particular feel unsafe. Often, they would wait for a male relative to accompany them to the bathrooms; and if no such relative was available or they lived in female-headed households, many women and girls chose to wash as best they could inside their shelters, compromising their hygiene, and causing drainage issues over time.
2. Identify solutions
Fast solution thanks to solar lights
Even before the camp opened in 2014, it was clear that Syrians needed a way to light the dark if their lives in Azraq were to become anything approaching normalcy. UNHCR had plans to construct a power grid and a solar power plant for the camp, but these were only plans in April 2014. A temporary, sustainable solution to bridge the time until the electricity grid could be completed was therefore needed.
It was found in the form of solar lanterns. From the very first day Azraq opened, every family arriving in the camp received one 1Watt solar lantern. The small light was bright enough for children to be able to continue their lessons after sunset, or for people to find their way following nightfall. The lanterns could also be used to charge simple mobile phones, enabling refugees in Azraq to remain in contact with friends and family who endured in Syria.
But the solar lanterns did little to light public spaces, such as kiosks, or market places, making communal activities difficult. Furthermore, the experience of walking down a dark path with a light in hand is very different to walking down a well-lit path with your hands free – and women and girls in particular reported feeling unsafe even with a lantern.
In September 2014, UNHCR therefore added 480 solar-powered streetlights to the camp, illuminating paths outside 2,619 homes. The lamps are just under four meters high, with the solar panels located at the top, rendering them environmentally friendly and self-sustaining.
3. Test solutions
Trimming lights to suit life inside Azraq
The streetlights were delivered with their batteries in an easily accessible metal casing at the foot of the lamp. These batteries could be removed swiftly and without difficulty, which was problematic because batteries are a scarce commodity that refugees covet. To keep the lamps intact and avoid theft, UNHCR welded the casing shut before installing the streetlights in September 2014.
This modification proved effective. Virtually none of the lamps in residential areas have been tampered with, which shows how much refugees in Azraq value the improvement to camp-life the lights provide. On the other hand, most of the lamps in public areas have had their batteries removed on at least one occasion.
And there was a second problem beside battery removal. There were not enough streetlights for the camp. The 480 solar-powered street lamps delivered were only enough to adequately light one of four villages. And at the time the lamps were delivered, Syrians were already occupying two of Azraq’s four villages – although only one was filled to capacity. UNHCR faced a tough decision. It could either light both villages poorly our one village adequately. After careful deliberation, the agency opted for the second option, and properly equipped the village filled to capacity. Two street lamps were installed in every plot of that village, and the market areas as well as the camp police were given additional lamps. So far, this has not led to friction within the camp. The solution is not ideal, though. It is making the most out of not enough.
And there were problems with the solar lanterns, too. Many Syrians in the camp own sophisticated handsets or even smartphones. But the lanterns originally distributed only had the capacity to charge very basic mobile phones, and were unable to store enough energy for providing light as well as charging a phone simultaneously. Furthermore, if a family member took the lantern to go to the bathroom, for instance, the rest of the household was left in darkness.
4. Refine solutions
Finding better lanterns that also charge smartphones
As soon as possible, UNHCR sourced a solar lantern with improved technology. By late 2014, the agency had found one with more hours of light, and higher phone charging capacity. Next, in early 2015, UNHCR began distributing two solar lanterns to every Syrian family inside the camp. This increase was made possible by the launch of the IKEA Foundation’s “Brighter Lives for Refugees” campaign.
Slowly, life inside Azraq was becoming brighter. Children were able to study after sunset, and adults could continue income-generating activities like sewing or weaving in the evenings. Any type of phone could be charged without depleting the lantern, and the addition of a second lantern meant activities didn’t have to be interrupted if one family member stepped outside.
5. Scale solutions
Maintaining solar lamps until the electricity grid is complete
Solar lamps will always be less cost efficient than grid-connected lights, though, as solar panels need to regularly cleaned to retain functionality, and batteries need to be replaced periodically. As such, rather than investing in solar street-lamps for the remaining villages in Azraq, UNHCR is currently developing a power grid and a solar power plant for the camp, known as the Plan for Sustainability Azraq Electricity Project (AEP).
Development for the AEP began in Autumn 2014, and the project is set to be finished in Spring 2016. Once completed, refugees in Azraq will have reliable access to more cost-efficient power.
Favoring a power grid over additional solar lamps was not merely a cost calculation by UNHCR, though. The agency had interviewed Syrian refugees about their light needs, and these interviews revealed that for Syrians, electricity is the key energy source that elevates the standard of living. It supports economic development within the community, and facilitates social activities. For them, it is not just a question of having power but also of how that power is accessed. Having shelters connected to an electrical grid means lights can be turned on through the flip of a switch. This will move Azraq’s shelters marginally closer to resembling the houses Syrians left behind, to make Syrian refugees feel that little bit more at home.