New tool for managing the fuel needs of displaced populations

July 21st, 2016

Rome – A FAO-UNHCR handbook offers a new tool for helping displaced people access fuel for cooking food while reducing environmental damage and conflicts with local communities.

At the end of 2015, over 65 million people worldwide were displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, generalised violence or human rights violations, many living in refugee camps or improvised settlements, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Fuel for cooking food is a critical resource for displaced people as well as the communities that host them, crucial to their food security and nutrition.

But growing numbers of refugees and displaced people often puts pressure on forests, due to rising demand for biomass fuel such as wood and charcoal. Left unmanaged, this increased competition for natural resources can lead to conflicts with local populations.

And overexploitation of forest resources for fuel purposes can lead to forest degradation or deforestation in areas surrounding the camps.

There are other risks as well.

Respiratory illness from cooking over open flames or using inefficient cooking technologies are another cause for concern in displaced communities. Where wood is scarce, people sometimes spend their wages or sell off food rations to buy fuel. Undercooking or skipping meals due to an inadequate supply of cooking fuel can also be a problem.

A step-by-step method for a careful assessment

The new technical handbook, “Assessing woodfuel supply and demand in displacement settings” contains a methodology that humanitarian workers and camp managers can use when tackling such issues.

The handbook outlines a step by step process for assessing energy needs and the nature and availability of local fuelwood sources and using geographic information system and remote sensing data to map the distribution and changes over time of woody biomass resources.

The methodology relies on field inventory data and high-resolution satellite images and relevant technical and socio-economic data that permit an in-depth assessment of woodfuel supply and demand dynamics.

One of the places it was field-tested is the Shimelba camp in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which was established in 2004 and now hosts 6,000 people with very limited access to natural resources.

As wood is becoming increasingly scarce in this area, residents need to walk long distances – sometimes up to 9 hours – to gather fuelwood. The local population is reportedly unhappy about the situation and refugee women, in particular, have expressed concern for their safety during fuelwood collection.

A guide to better informed-decision making

In the case of the Shimelba camp, the assessment process showed a degradation of forest and shrub resources. The methodology also helped camp managers to estimate stocks of above-ground woody biomass available and anticipate variations of these stocks.

According to the authors, the information yielded by the methodology enables camp managers and other field-based actors to take better informed decisions. The data collected can be used to monitor fuel consumption and evaluate trends, support decisions to boost afforestation and reforestation activities or to introduce changes to how fuel is sourced or used – for example with the introduction of alternative fuel and more efficient cooking technologies.

The handbook notes that fuelwood can be supplied through a variety of tree and forest systems, such as mixed forest plantations, or through integrated food energy systems that produce both food and energy, such as agro-forestry or multiple cropping systems.

FAO will continue to help refugees and internally displaced persons on the ground in collaboration with UNHCR by providing technical advice. Building people’ resilience to threats and crises is a core priority for the Organization.