Creating sustainable energy for refugee villages

Evangeline Arethwala

28 July 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

I grew up in a village hosting many refugees. The Refugee Villages (RVs) and their equally marginalised hosting areas do not have any reliable energy access- my village has electricity supply for only 6-8 hours per day. Through my current work, I now develop solutions for energy access for refugees and their hosting communities which are green, affordable and sustainable.

Dr Tanvir Ahmad

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), approximately 90% of refugees living in camps and host communities, such as RVs, have limited access to reliable, clean and sustainable electricity or cooking fuels. Despite humanitarian efforts to address the energy needs of refugees, many host countries are unable to implement interventions due to limited policy and awareness on clean energy interventions more broadly.

Pakistan is experiencing a country-wide energy crisis due to limited energy resources. It is also one of the largest refugee-hosting countries, with displaced populations from Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Bangladesh. With a growing refugee population due to ongoing conflicts, natural disasters and an ongoing energy shortage, there is significant strain on humanitarian efforts to sustain energy interventions for refugees and the host communities. 

In 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) initiated several clean energy interventions as per the Global Strategy for Sustainable Energy (2019-2025), which aims to deliver affordable, reliable and sustainable energy to all settlements of forcibly displaced people and nearby host communities. To align with the strategy objectives, in Pakistan the UNHCR implements programmes to improve access to clean and sustainable energy for refugees and their host communities.

Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Tanvir Ahmad joined UNHCR in 2022 as the Energy Officer and focal person- Climate Change, and is responsible for implementing climate-friendly, smart energy solutions for refugees and disadvantaged host communities in Pakistan.

Creating solutions for those in refugee villages

As an energy officer, Tanvir manages multi-million-dollar projects providing clean energy solutions within RVs, liaises with key national and international stakeholders, and monitors and evaluates projects to ensure long-term sustainability.

Tanvir Ahmad in conversation with refugees and their hosting communities regarding installing solar streetlightsIn 2020, UNHCR conducted a needs assessment in three RVs in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhutnkhwa and Punjab provinces. Analyses indicated that almost 50% income of a refugee household was spent on energy, which is 12 times higher than expenses on health and education. Despite this expense, the RVs did not have regular electricity or water supply. To address these challenges, Tanvir developed short to long-term solutions to improve the refugees’ quality of life.

The energy intervention solutions included the distribution of solar lights, installation of solar-powered streetlights, waste disposal and management, and solar water pumps. To date, the interventions have supported over 80,000 families and installed more than 5 megawatt clean energy in 45 community facilities, including schools and health facilities.

UNHCR’s survey also found that in most households, women and children were subjected to indoor air pollution due to unsafe cooking methods, resulting in respiratory diseases and risks to maternal health. To mitigate this, Tanvir designed improved fuel-efficient cooking stove kits equipped with chimneys to reduce indoor accumulation of smoke from burning biomass such as wood, crop waste, and animal dung. The installation of these cooking stoves has resulted in households not only benefitting from improved indoor air quality but also saving up to 40% of their income on fuel.

The stoves were subsequently certified by the Government of Pakistan and in 2021, UNHCR successfully procured funding to secure more cooking stove kits. 70,000 additional stoves have since been installed in refugee households in 54 RVs in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region. In 2023, UNHCR scaled up efforts by further distributing around 6,000 cooking stove kits.

“These [clean energy] interventions have saved 2,700 tons of CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to 265,226 gallons of unused diesel.”

Apart from environment benefits, the intervention of providing clean and affordable energy interventions has improved access to education and the provision of solar powered street-lights have ensured the safety of women and girls,

Tanvir’s journey to his career

Growing up in a village hosting refugees, Tanvir studied alongside refugee children in a school with no electricity or water supply. These early experiences have informed his passion for working for the welfare of Afghan refugees at the grassroots level and motivated him to pursue a career that would address these challenges.

Tanvir Ahmad working on his PhD research work at Durham UniversityFollowing degrees in engineering and an MBA, Tanvir worked in the corporate sector for a few years, but soon realised he wasn’t using his skills for these communities. To combine his engineering knowledge and drive for grassroots work, he applied for a PhD in Renewable Energy Systems at Durham University through a Commonwealth Scholarship.

His research explored relationships between energy, technology, environment and society. During his studies, Tanvir presented his research at international conferences and collaborated with international energy organisations as a lead researcher, as well as joining Durham University’s Energy for Development (E4Dev) group. This exposure helped build his confidence and gain professional experience of the sector, develop skills in managing multi-disciplinary projects, and generate ideas on ways to apply his skills.

The challenges of implementing clean energy

Upon returning to Pakistan, Tanvir was appointed Head of Energy Management and Sustainability at the US Pakistan Centre for Advanced Studies in Energy, University of Engineering & Technology Peshawar. With teaching experience from his time in the UK, he initiated a new research degree on Energy Management and Sustainability (EMS), supported by USAID.

“The EMS was a highly successful program with more than 50 students in the first two batches. Scholarships were introduced for female students from less-privileged backgrounds, resulting in 30% of the female students studying the course.”

In 2019, Tanvir joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Energy Centre (SEC) as the Programme Leader – Technology Transfer, working at the regional level in South Asia. SEC promotes peace and economic prosperity through meeting the energy demands of vulnerable communities. Here, Tanvir conducted research on SEC’s work in volatile environment and published a series of studies on regionally collaborative SEC projects which were aimed at policy makers to strengthen humanitarian and development efforts to achieve energy access.

Tanvir admits that one of the biggest challenges while implementing clean energy projects in humanitarian settings and rural communities is to ensure sustainability. He notes that various factors hinder the continuation of projects such as lack of funding, disputes between refugees and their hosting communities, social and cultural norms, and lack of local government support. As such, he stresses the importance of supporting hosting communities through the implementation process to avoid tensions between the displaced individuals and locals and optimise the impact of the interventions.

Achieving through the Commonwealth Scholarship

Apart from his role at the UNHCR, Tanvir has worked as a national consultant on climate change and clean energy to various organisations, such as United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) through the Ministry of Climate Change Pakistan, and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In 2022, following the devastating floods in Pakistan, he was a key energy expert on the UN’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment. In this role, he formed a team to provide emergency response to affected areas, including refugee settlements. He continues to support the ongoing relief work, with the focus now on building self-sustainable and self-resilient communities to enable them to respond to further climate change impacts.

Tanvir plans to continue working in grassroots level energy interventions, collaborating directly with people with limited opportunities. He recounts in his Commonwealth Scholarship application his motivation for applying was to provide sustainable, uninterrupted, clean, and affordable energy to the least privileged. His scholarship experience provided him with the skills and knowledge to achieve this goal.

“Coming from a humble background, the most significant change because of my Commonwealth Scholarship and PhD was the believe that I can achieve anything with hard work and the skills to generalise my work to achieve the desired results. I have successfully created linkages between energy, environment, and climate change and how this can have a cross-sectoral impact in humanitarian and development sectors.”

Dr Tanvir Ahmad is a 2013 Commonwealth Scholar from Pakistan. He completed his PhD in Renewable Energy Systems at Durham University.