James Haselip
Author James Haselip
Senior Researcher, Danish Technical University and the United Nations Environment Programme
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James Haselip Does Uganda's Refugee Policy Enable Sustainable Energy Production and Consumption Within its Settlements?

Does Uganda's Refugee Policy Enable Sustainable Energy Production and Consumption?

The Ugandan government's policy towards refugees is often referred to as being the most generous and progressive in the world, welcoming almost one million people from war-torn South Sudan since 2015.

Unlike most host countries, where refugees are placed in camps, Uganda gives refugees a high degree of freedom to move around and access primary education, healthcare and other basic social services. They also have the right to work and own a business. Much emphasis is placed on 'peaceful coexistence' between refugees and locals, which by and large is the reality.

However, the rapid influx of refugees has had an inevitable impact on local economies, as well as the environment, including an increased demand for timber to construct houses and energy for cooking and heating. Since more than 90 per cent of refugees and local households in rural Uganda rely mostly on firewood for cooking and heating, there is concern over how this influx is having an impact on the local environment. The use of open 'three stone' fires leads to a range of well-known negative externalities, including deforestation, land degradation, soil erosion, species loss, droughts and carbon dioxide and black carbon emissions. According to a 2017 report by UNDP, Uganda's estimated ecosystem loss due to the presence of refugees was more than US$90 million per year, making up over 28 per cent of the total public cost of hosting refugees. The human impacts are also significant, including time spent collecting fuel, the risk of conflict with host communities due to competition for finite natural resources, exposure to violence, and finally the health impacts of indoor air pollution. In addition, women and children under 18 make up 86 per cent of the South Sudanese refugee population in Uganda and they are mostly the ones exposed to these risks. Furthermore, in northern Uganda, the precise scale, and nature, of these impacts is not well understood, given the speed of the influx.

However, new studies are underway to provide more detailed assessments of these negative impacts and how to mitigate them. The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), which oversees refugees in Uganda, has commissioned a national study being conducted by the Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC) at Makerere University, financed by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and managed by the World Food Programme. Other research is focused on the opportunities for investment in the sustainable production and consumption of energy, and how this can trigger development benefits. This includes projects carried out by UNEP DTU and related studies by the German development agency GIZ, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Bank and UNHCR's own energy response plan. All of these efforts are aimed at coordinating these activities and communicating the findings in order to provide clear recommendations.

more than 90 per cent of refugees and local households in rural Uganda rely mostly on firewood for cooking and heating

Moreover, Uganda's refugee policy provides an important opportunity to explore the relationship between household energy consumption, livelihoods and wider economic development. In particular, given the average age of refugee settlements is more than 18 years, there is a need to understand these cause-and-effect dynamics in protracted situations. Here, we can build upon pioneering work on refugee economies in Uganda[1], to explore the dynamics of how refugees and host communities interact, trade and benefit from each other. When it comes to understanding the role and importance of household energy consumption, there are also opportunities for investment in the sustainable production of firewood and charcoal that would offer multiple benefits. 

However, although refugees are given the right to use the land they are settled on, they do not own it. Rather the OPM signs an agreement with local communities that allows refugees to settle on their land for a fixed period of time which is usually 15 years. As the number of refugees has increased, the size of allocated plots has diminished from 100x100m to sometimes less than 30x30m. In any case, these plots are insufficient to supply timber or firewood as well as other food resources, and so it is the host communities who own the land, that control the resources. Therefore refugees are obliged to travel further to collect wood for construction and cooking, and are forced to pay or barter for these resources. The poorest households, who cannot afford to pay or barter for fuel, are the most affected and are also exposed to the risk of conflict. Deforestation is driving firewood scarcity which is already pushing up prices and creating a more competitive market for firewood and charcoal. But this means there could be significant opportunities for income generating activities, if farmers begin to reforest land for example, to have a source of income in more than five years from now, although this will mostly benefit the host communities since they own the land.

On the demand side, the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI) and UNEP DTU have both conducted research that has found there is a significant willingness to pay for modern energy services among refugees, revealing the value placed upon access to clean and more efficient technologies for lighting, cooking and heating. Uganda's refugee policy also opens up opportunities for investment in local energy businesses owned, and run by, refugees and the local population, to build or sell efficient cookstoves, such as the fixed 'Lorena' rocket stoves that have a high level of usage in the region, where they are installed. Here, it is important to gather basic data on household incomes, employment and the costs from woodfuel collection, in order to understand the potential for a market in alternative fuels and cooking technologies, in and around refugee settlements. This can only be done by obtaining an in-depth understanding of the economic relationships between refugees and the host communities as well as the scope for donor-backed projects for the mutual benefit of the refugee and host populations. Simple, tried and tested solutions should be prioritized: a mix of reforestation and cleaner cookstoves would make the most sense. Such investment in the sustainable production and consumption of biomass energy also supports the objectives of Uganda's Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), which embraces the tenets of sustainable development. But we must be careful when generalizing: energy economies are context-specific and both the local and refugee population are a cause of, and are affected by, environmental degradation. It's not always clear who the winners and losers are in this dynamic so donor-backed intervention should be designed and implemented in partnership with both refugees and host communities.

Simple, tried and tested solutions should be prioritized: a mix of reforestation and cleaner cookstoves would make the most sense.

The OPM is operating on the assumption that many of Uganda’s refugees will still be living in Uganda in over 10 years. As such, the government is aware of the sustainability issues surrounding its refugee settlements and has been one of the first host governments to endorse the objectives of the emerging Global Plan of Action on providing energy for displaced people. According to Johnpaul Magezi, environment officer at the Office of the Prime Minister, ‘This issue requires significant funding from the international community and private sector to ensure that refugee and host communities are able to live sustainably’. The World Bank has also earmarked US$400 million to be invested in Uganda's refugee hosting areas over the next five years. Some of this should flow to sustainable energy programmes, to catalyze the development benefits of market creation and widespread technology switching.

In contrast to popular perception, research conducted by UNEP DTU indicates that many refugees and host communities are concerned about their environment, and have ideas for potential solutions. Humanitarian partners should tap into this knowledge and skills, in order to finance local entrepreneurs who can offer the sustainable energy products that people on the ground want. If not, then donor-backed interventions will be doomed to fail.

[1] Betts et al. (2017)