By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Attracting private sector investment to provide clean energy in refugee camps would not only end their reliance on dangerous fuels and create job opportunities, but could also help local communities get on the grid, energy experts said on Tuesday.
Refugees worldwide struggle to access energy, and often pay high costs for primitive fuels like firewood, according to the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), a partnership between charities, the British government and the United Nations' refugee agency.
With a record 65.3 million people uprooted by conflict or persecution in 2015, aid experts are seeking to increase the provision of sustainable energy for refugees and the displaced.
Encouraging private developers to light up refugee camps - by using solar or wind powered mini-grids - could be a launchpad for providing power to nearby communities who lack access to energy, said Owen Grafham of the thinktank Chatham House.
"Camps offer a good starting point to develop local energy markets," the energy researcher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Goudoubo camp in northeastern Burkina Faso, which is home to some 15,000 Malian refugees.
"Camp communities are tightly bonded - like mini cities - and are generally able and willing to pay for energy ... they are a good market opportunity for the private sector," he added.
More than nine in 10 households in the Goudoubo camp are willing to pay for electricity, with the average family currently spending up to a tenth of their income on harmful fuels like firewood and charcoal, according to the MEI.
At least 20,000 displaced people die prematurely from respiratory conditions due to their dependency on such fuels for cooking, according to a report by the London-based Chatham House.
The limited electricity in Goudoubo - there are just three generators to power water pumps and a health clinic - means women and girls are scared to leave their homes after dark and children find it difficult to study at night, MEI experts said.
The lack of power also holds back entrepreneurship and commerce in the refugee camp, according to Mattia Vianello, a consultant from the development charity Practical Action.
"Private sector involvement would enable camp residents to be more connected - through mobiles, radios, televisions and the internet - and boost business and job creation," he said.
The MEI said it was considering solutions for Goudoubo such as looking to the private sector to install a mini-grid, working with the national energy company to connect the camp to the national grid, and using current aid spending on firewood to pay for cleaner fuel instead.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)