Aid agencies must act to save millions spent on inefficient fossil fuels, says report

Humanitarian organisations could save some half a billion dollars every year by switching from diesel and oil fuels to cleaner energy sources, research has found.

The report says the “overall picture of energy use by humanitarian agencies is one “of inefficiency and wastefulness” and it makes recommendations to tackle the situation.

The research carried out by Chatham House for the Moving Energy Initiative says that agencies operating in many emergency settings are heavily reliant on polluting, expensive supplies of diesel and oil-based fuels. “Humanitarians are operating in tough environments where saving lives come first” says co-author Owen Grafham, “energy is not given much thought – diesel is the go-to fuel because it’s what agencies are used to and it’s quick-to-deploy.”

Yet researchers say that aid organisations are often paying extremely high prices for the electricity they generate.  Fuel supplies can be vulnerable and prices held hostage to black marketeers. Lack of system management leads to poor maintenance and frequent breakdowns.

The report also says that refugee camps, which have an average age of 18 years and are often home to many tens of thousands of people – put a strain on local communities and resources.

It estimates that around 5 per cent of humanitarian agency expenditure is spent on such fuels – equivalent to $1.2 billion in 2017. It claims that “achievable changes in practice and technology” -such as solar power, could save the sector some half a billion US dollars in operational costs each year.

Researchers say the presence of international humanitarian agencies supporting large groups of vulnerable people escaping war, famine or disaster – has significant implications for local economies and the environment. But little attention has been paid to the ways in which power is provided to aid operations, or to its financial and environmental impact.

Co-author Glada Lahn said: “Energy is essential to humanitarian response. Most refugee and internal displacement camps are in remote locations, so relief efforts consume large amounts of fuel on the long-distance transport of staff, equipment, and goods such as food and water. Operations tend to rely on on-site generators to power reception centres, clinics, schools, food storage and water pumping ”.

The number of those fleeing conflict is at an unprecedented high, having risen by 3 million between 2016 and 2017. The figure of 68.5million people forcibly displaced is 60 per cent higher than it was 10 years ago. With complex conflicts in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, the Sudans and Nigeria for example, the need for humanitarian assistance shows little sign of abating.

But the report highlights examples where innovative solutions are making a difference. Jordan, where first-of-their-kind solar plants for two major Syrian refugee camps are making annual savings of $7.5 million for UNHCR, have relieved pressures on the national electricity grid and are hoped to remain a legacy asset for local communities. The report – The Costs of Fuelling Humanitarian Aid (LINK)  recommends that aid agencies draw up practical plans to switch to cleaner fuels, including phasing out of diesel generators.

Other recommendations include agencies increasing sharing vehicle fleets, improving monitoring of use and costs and being transparent about fuel costs in reporting.

Grafham said: “In almost every humanitarian situation in which a diesel generator is in operation, there is a cost case (as well as an environmental one) for the hybridization or solarization of the energy infrastructure. At a time of significant budget pressure for many actors in the humanitarian system, agencies should seriously examine the potential of new energy solutions to reduce costs, create new opportunities for vulnerable people, and leave legacy assets for the host community.” 


The report also calls upon host countries to ask aid agencies how they are working to reduce their emissions and to include sustainable energy in their humanitarian response plans.