Aug 23,2016 – JORDAN TIMES – GLADA LAHN
The Syria crisis, which has displaced some 11.3 million people, has exposed the cracks in the conventional humanitarian relief system. And for neighbouring countries like Jordan that host the majority of refugees, it is widening pre-existing cracks in public service systems and infrastructure.
Following the general elections in September, debates in the new Parliament will often be coloured by these challenges, central as they are to social and political stability.
But with political support, the crisis also presents opportunities to strengthen national systems, particularly in energy and water, where pressures are acute.
Last year, a consortium of international organisations launched the Moving Energy Initiative to look specifically at how energy might be more sustainably delivered in situations of protracted displacement.
Our global assessment found a distressing picture of short-term and inadequate energy provision that is expensive, dirty and damaging to health.
And handing out solar lanterns and blankets is not enough.
Energy and water demand amongst refugee communities cannot be separated from the wider context of the country’s infrastructure and sustainability challenges.
In this respect, Jordan is a test case for this new approach — one that is also relevant to the ongoing refugee crises in Lebanon, Greece, Turkey and Egypt.
Zaatari and Azraq camps may now be emblematic of the Syrian crisis, but the majority of refugees in Jordan — 82 per cent — live in privately rented accommodation.
It is a similar story worldwide.
This complex situation requires a change in the way NGOs and UN agencies work, but also in government implementation of renewable energy policies.
In the space of five years, some cities in the north of Jordan experienced a population surge of 30 per cent — adding pressure to already overstretched housing, public services and infrastructure.
Fuel and water use across Jordan has risen sharply since 2011, as have government subsidy bills.
As one of the most water and resource scarce countries in the world, this becomes a formidable challenge for Jordan.
Schools have returned to running double shifts, thereby doubling electricity and water bills for the Ministry of Education, adding to an already pressed situation.
These pressures gnaw away at social cohesion.
Low- to middle-income Jordanians feel the daily strain of inflation, a housing shortage and unemployment.
Meanwhile, the majority of Syrian refugee families live below the country’s poverty line, for the most part with few legal rights to employment, spending high proportions of their incomes on energy for cooking, heating and electricity.
But Jordan’s capacity to manage this crisis is good compared to most other countries hosting large refugee populations.
Strong international interest in the Syria crisis and Jordan’s security mean the country has attracted increasing flows of aid and assistance.
To channel this more effectively and durably, the government, together with UN and NGO partners, developed detailed response and resilience plans in key areas, including education, health and energy.
And in energy, pioneering models of humanitarian intervention are taking shape.
The Norwegian Refugee Council is installing solar water heaters (SWHs) for private landlords hosting vulnerable refugee families in return for a reduction in their rent.
It has also begun equipping schools in Amman with solar PV panels to reduce their electricity bills.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) has partnered with the IKEA Foundation, alongside Jordanian renewable energy company Mustakbal, to construct a solar farm to serve both the Azraq Refugee Camp and its surrounding villages, employing a mix of local and Syrian workers.
These are not typical projects for humanitarians. They are experimental and in their early days, but they suggest how humanitarian response can actively support local markets and bolster national energy objectives.
At a workshop we held in Amman in April, humanitarian, development and private sector partners were urged to coordinate efforts on creating practical, efficiency-first solutions such as water pipeline repair, insulation of houses, efficient lighting and SWHs, in ways that invest in strengthening local markets and reinforcing building codes, standards and regulations.
This would generate a demand for a much-needed grid upgrade, but also create new job opportunities for both Jordanians and Syrians.
As part of the Moving Energy Initiative, we plan to facilitate this kind of approach through local projects that build a positive legacy that transcends the refugee crisis, aligns with Jordan’s efficiency and renewable energy goals and promotes local green collar jobs.
The political establishment in Jordan is now focusing its energy on the upcoming elections, but soon after it will need to focus on energy to rise strong from this crisis.
Displacement due to conflict is rarely short term. Treating it as such can compound the problems that both refugees and their hosts face.
Political solutions to bring peace and enable refugees to return home safely should be the number one priority for the international community.
But until that happens, countries like Jordan that accept large refugee populations bear additional economic, resource and public service pressures — and the inevitable social tensions which deepen the trauma of displacement.
We hope that the lessons from Jordan’s experience will feed into humanitarian response across the region and beyond.
Glada Lahn is senior research fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Department of Chatham House and a member of the Moving Energy Initiative. Adel Elsayed Sparr is senior research fellow and deputy director at the West Asia–North Africa Institute, Jordan. They contributed this article to The Jordan Times.