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Alternative Fuels Take Root in Refugee Camps

By Rebecca Laks | December 9, 2008

Firewood market in Darfur. CREDIT: Genocide Intervention Network (CC).

The land surrounding Kalma camp in South Darfur is dotted with small craters. Much of this landscaping has been done by women who live in the largest refugee camp in Sudan. They walk for hours scavenging the arid environs for firewood to use for cooking or to sell to support their families. First the women cut down the few existing trees in the area, and then when no trees are left they dig up the roots, leaving the ground pock-marked.

Families in Darfur have traditionally cooked with wood over open flame, but the practice has become linked to many problems. Women are raped and assaulted while collecting firewood. The environment is degraded. Women suffer respiratory illness from cooking smoke, and open flames pose a hazard in crowded camps.

In response, humanitarian organizations are introducing alternative fuels and energy technologies to Darfur and refugee camps worldwide, and businesses and relief organizations will come together this week at the first Beyond Firewood conference in New Delhi, India, to discuss energy-related ideas and products.

Although humanitarian organizations provide food and shelter, they often overlook cooking fuel, said Erin Patrick, a Senior Program Officer at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, in a phone interview with Policy Innovations. The Women's Commission has pioneered efforts to help women avoid danger while they collect firewood and to raise awareness about safe access to cooking fuel through its Get Beyond Firewood campaign and an international network of organizations, donors, and technology experts who share information on fuel projects.

Humanitarian food rations often consist of hard grains, lentils, and beans that must be cooked at length, requiring a substantial amount of firewood. In the Darfur and Chad camps, a staple dish is assida, or ugali as it is known in many east African countries, which is porridge made from millet, sorghum, flour, or other slow-cooking grains.

Fuel-efficient stoves have been a common energy intervention in Darfur. The stoves can reduce the amount of firewood consumed by 20 to 80 percent, especially when combined with cooking techniques such as pre-soaking beans and lentils, thoroughly milling grains, and sheltering cooking fires from the wind. A stove can cost as little as one dollar, and some last up to three years, but camp conditions are far from ideal laboratory conditions and stoves often perform less efficiently than expected.

Typical fuel strategies have been small scale, ad hoc, and rarely use a combination of alternative fuels and technologies. The Get Beyond Firewood campaign has been trying to change that. "What works in Nepal is not what works in Darfur, which is not what works in Chad," said Ms. Patrick.

A different type of cooking device, the solar cooker, is being used by Darfuri refugees in the Iridimi, Touloum, and Oure Cassoni camps of eastern Chad where the sun shines brightly 330 days a year. Jewish World Watch (JWW) partnered with Kozon, a Dutch NGO, to introduce the CooKit, a small, lightweight solar cooker made of cardboard and aluminum foil. Families have one cooker for corn meal and another for water, sauce, or vegetables on rare occasions.

JWW reports that as of May 2007 more than 15,000 cookers had been distributed in Iridimi camp. JWW pays camp women to assemble the cookers and to train other refugees to use them. A family using two solar cookers can save up to one ton of firewood per year, and JWW reports that women's trips outside of the Iridimi camp have gone down by 86 percent, which may also be because trees are increasingly scarce.

The solar cookers must be replaced every 3 to 6 months, as their cardboard frames are fairly flimsy. And women have complained that the CooKits cook slowly—rice can take up to one and a half hours and a liter of water takes 30 minutes to boil—and food cannot be fried.

Back in Darfur, communities have continued to rebuff solar cooking. Ms. Patrick surmises that this resistance is due in large part to "parachuting"—NGOs dropping solar cooking technology into the camps, and doing little in the way of training or raising awareness in a culture used to cooking over an open flame and to the smoky flavors produced by firewood.

The Get Beyond Firewood campaign has also called for better collaboration and communication among humanitarian organizations. Program information is often lost due to frequent staff turnover, and duplication of efforts and poor communication can be common.

Meanwhile, the availability of firewood in Darfur is dwindling, and women in North Darfur have all but stopped collecting firewood simply because there is none to collect, said Ms. Patrick. The Sudanese Forestry Department has reported total destruction of the environment up to a radius of an hour's walk around the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Darfur—there are virtually no trees and the mining of their roots has prevented regrowth.

Rebecca Laks is currently pursuing a Master's of Public Health in the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

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Read More: Aid, Charity, Culture, Development, Energy, Environment, Gender, Health, Human Rights, Poverty, Technology, Chad, Sudan, Nepal, Africa

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