Why is it important?

Providing a reliable source of energy during disaster response is key for powering clean-up, construction and operation of a settlement. During operation, settlement inhabitants (aid workers, IDPs, refugees) will require a daily supply of energy for lighting, cooking, heating or cooling, refrigeration and powering of equipment.

Lighting is important in enabling chores, studies and business to be conducted at night, and also to provide safety within and beyond the settlement.

Food is a primary need for the survival of refugees or IDPs, making the need for cooking fuel evident very quickly following a crisis. Individuals are likely to wish to cook familiar food using familiar cooking methods and cooking equipment. This often involves the use of traditional stoves which are fuelled by fuelwood or charcoal that are collected, made or purchased. Wood and charcoal are the most commonly used fuel. Selling of fuelwood or charcoal can also be a source of vital income for settlement inhabitants.

In the absence of electricity, wood or charcoal-burning stoves are also a source of heat for individual shelters.

Electricity for lighting, cooling (technical ventilation), refrigeration (food, medicines) or for powering equipment is predominantly sourced by diesel generators (5-10 Horsepower) or car batteries charged using car engines. These are particularly critical for powering emergency medical equipment and procedures. Grid connection is a luxury that is usually not available.

Lighting is also facilitated through the use of kerosene. However this is a highly unsustainable and increasingly expensive fuel originating from fossil fuels which can be a fire hazard or extremely dangerous if accidentally consumed by children. During disaster relief it may be a prohibitively expensive fuel to obtain unless distributed for free by aid agencies, however displaced individuals are also likely to sell that on for obtaining income for other vital supplies.

Energy Checklist

  • Do you know how much energy is required for what part of the operation (offices, accommodation, camp areas)?
  • Have you researched the practicality of using alternatives for those activities that may impact on the environment e.g. agroforestry in replace of mono-culture?
  • Can you monitor and respond to the results?
  • Can you make a good case study from the work you have done?
Case Study
Why Is Energy Important?

Environmental Impact

Climate Change

The use of fossil fuels to provide much needed electricity to the settlement via diesel generators and car batteries, is not an economically and environmentally sustainable option in the long term. Aside from contributing to rapid climate change through the production of carbon emissions, it can lock the settlement community into expensive practices relying on depleting resources, delaying recovery and economic development. Excessive burning of firewood and charcoal from unsustainable forests also contributes to the carbon footprint of the settlement and its exacerbation of climate change.

climate change info
Greenhouse gas emissions

A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect which maintains the stable temperature of the Earth.

Since the Industrial Revolution there has been a 40% increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which is believed to be contributing to a change in the Earth’s climatic systems. Changes in this system is increasing the vulnerability of many populations.

Air pollution

The daily burning of firewood or charcoal in traditional stoves or open fires can increase the amount of dangerous fumes and carbon monoxide accumulating within individual shelters and within the camp. These pose a severe risk, particularly to women who are involved in the cooking and household chores, and to small children.

Air Pollution info
Air Pollution

Air pollution is the introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulates, or biological materials that cause discomfort, disease, or death to humans, damage other living organisms such as food crops, or damage the natural environment or built environment.

Household air pollution can have a significant impact on the a population’s respiratory health.


Harvesting of wood for cooking, heating, lighting or as a means of income can lead to significant deforestation in areas surrounding the settlement.

The harvesting is often predominantly done by women and children who, as resources become scarcer, have to travel further and further away from the settlement to collect firewood, thus becoming vulnerable to abuse, sexual assault or abduction.

Deforestation info

Deforestation, clearance or clearing is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use. This may be due to agricultural practice by an increased population or as a result of increased demand for fuel wood.

Deforestation has significant impact on water sequestering, renewal of aquifers, soil nutritional value due to erosion of topsoil (see Food), erosion of soil in general and an increase in vulnerability due to increased risk of flooding or landslides, depending on the topography.

Solid waste management & water pollution

If not disposed of appropriately, lead-acid batteries can expose people to toxic lead components exposure to which, even in small amounts, can have serious health implications including brain and kidney damage.

more Solid waste management info
Solid Waste Management

Waste management is the collection, transport, processing or disposal, managing and monitoring of waste materials.

There are two streams of waste management relevant to humanitarian operations. The disaster waste stream which is produced by the disaster and the normal waste stream which is produced by the activities of a population. Disregarding the management of waste streams increases the risk of spreading disease and poses significant public health risks; as well as logistic challenges due to blocked transport links.

water pollution info
Water Pollution

Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies (e.g. lakes, rivers, oceans, aquifers and groundwater). Water pollution occurs when pollutants are discharged directly or indirectly into water bodies without adequate treatment to remove harmful compound.

Water pollution reduces security for a population by contaminating otherwise available clean water. It also increases stress on non-polluted water supplies which would antagonise local populations and increases costs due to a need to import fresh water – this also leads to greenhouse gas emissions

Mitigation Strategies

Stove Design

Traditional stove designs are known to combust fuel inefficiently, release harmful fumes indoors and consume significant quantities of wood or charcoal. Improved cookstove are available which if properly disseminated can reduce fuel consumption, indoor air pollution and improve respiratory health.

Fuel Sources

Cookstoves can be designed to be used with:

  • wood or charcoal;
  • liquefied petroleum gas (LPG); or
  • bioethanol.
Stove types

Improved cookstove examples include: Envirofit stoves, Selco stoves, Oorja stoves, Roumdé stoves, Stovetec stove. See Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves for more information.


Cookstoves can be disseminated for free in the case of extremely vulnerable families, they can also be offered in return for work around the settlement.

Collective cooking

Promoting collective cooking can conserve cooking fuel, if it is culturally appropriate and if feasible. This can be in the form of multi-family cooking or institutional cooking where food is cooked in a single location and distributed out. This can also simplify the promotion and distribution of fuel-efficient stoves and of alternative cooking fuels to firewood.

Energy saving practices

Energy-saving practices should also be promoted such as:

  • fire management (shielding the fire, controlling air supply, simmering food, putting out fires right away);
  • diet and food preparation (preferring fresh foods, soaking dried foods, milling or pounding hard grains, using traditional tenderisers such as ash);
  • cooking management (building a cooking shelter, choosing pot type depending on quick cooking or keeping food hot, use of tight lids with weight on top, ‘double cooking’: stacking pots on top of each other, adding liquid bit by bit until enough); and
  • distribution of blankets and warm clothes to lower the need for heating.

Solar cookers are an option but have various disadvantages including the need to be regularly turned to face the sun, long cooking times, unreliable cooking and lack of ability to cook at night.


Biomass can be broadly categorised into bioresources (existing woodlots), bioresidues (organic waste such as biogas or agro-waste) and biofuels (purpose built crops).


An effective way of delivering biomass as fuel to the stove is through the process of briquetting. Densified briquettes are produced through compression of biomass, while charred briquettes are produced through the burning and subsequent compression of biomass. The latter has the drawback of carbon and fume emissions during the burning process.


Despite the debate around the risks to food security of biofuel production, some organisations are advocates of the introduction of ethanol or methanol fuel-efficient stoves in humanitarian settlements.


Bioresidues are a less controversial source of biomass and also contribute to the minimisation of waste. Examples of bioresidues include:

  • biogas (from human and animal waste processing). Requires significant technical effort. Also, 10 families worth of waste will support the energy needs of 1 family;
  • peat – requires group collection and space for drying;
  • grass – Requires a special stove; and
  • loose wastes and residues (corn husks, cow dung etc.). Not optimal because hard to use, excessive smoke and often better used as natural fertilisers.
Liquid Petroleum Gas

Some organisations are advocates of LPG stoves, as these can reduce indoor air pollution significantly, and can help households begin a transition from solid fuels to liquid or gas fuels which are cleaner and produce less emissions that burning wood or charcoal.

Forestry management

Forest management programmes can ensure that demand of firewood is managed based on supply, that trees cut down are replaced, that rapid-growing trees are preferred, and that neighbouring communities and local government are in agreement with the harvesting that is taking place. This can lead to employment opportunities for the displaced population and can also ensure good relations with the locals are maintained.


Firewood and charcoal are livelihood opportunities for the displaced people. As these can also be sourced from neighbouring markets, it is important for agencies to have a sound understanding of the local fuel supply market and the impacts of the crises (or the displacement) on this (for example via an Emergency Market Mapping Analysis). Agencies can then support this in a way that it becomes inclusive and responsive to the needs of the settlement inhabitants. This can have the added benefit of increased income for displaced people and/or the local population.


Coordinated effort and a fuel co-ordination strategy between aid organisations, local businesses and local government can ensure that the settlement has sustainable, long-term access to fuel for expected duration of the displacement.

Site selection

Site selection for the settlement should also take into consideration exposure to wind and solar heat gain during daytime. Shelters should be close to each other to minimise heat losses and wind. For hot regions, site selection should take into consideration natural shading (trees) and proximity to vegetation (benefiting from transpiration cooling) and individual shelters should be constructed some distance from each other to enable ventilation. Planting trees around a settlement provides shade, protection from floods, improves soil condition and, if fruit trees, can provide food.

Outdoor cooking

Outdoor cooking can help reduce build-up of heat indoors.

Passive heating/cooling

Ensure that individual shelters make use of passive heating or cooling. For cold regions these include: wall or roof insulation, maximising thermal mass and having limited openings. For hot regions these include a high surface to volume ratio, cross ventilation (air entering one part of the shelter and leaving from another) and roof angle.


Used batteries of all kinds should be collected at marked collection points. They should never be drained on location as proper disposal of the acid cannot be guaranteed. In the case of long-term use of lead-acid batteries in the settlement, plans should be made for careful disposal, or the settlement should be linked to a battery recycling plant.


Generators powered by liquid, solid or gaseous biofuel are still under development and not yet available on the market.


Hazardous and unsustainable lighting techniques (kerosene, open fire), can be replaced either by solar Photovoltaic devices or by gas mantle lighting devices fuelled by biogas. Micro-solar devices are becoming increasingly popular for lighting and other low power charging requirements. They typically combine PV technology with Light Emmitting Diodes (LEDs) to provide lighting within the shelter, charging of mobile devices, or portable lighting in the form of a solar lantern.


For food preservation and refrigeration purposes in the absence of electricity, evaporative/passive cooling techniques can be used in technologies such as biomass or solar-powered sorption refrigerators. These however also typically require an input of methanol, ammonia and water.

Organisations and social enterprises producing Solar lighting devices
  • TERI (The Energy and Resource Institute, India),
  • SolarAid and D-Light.
  • The Lighting Africa and Lighting Asia initiatives of the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank support a large number of social enterprises with innovative delivery models for sustainable lighting.

Additional Resources

The Taskforce on safe access to firewood and alternative fuel sources in humanitarian settings of the IASC:
Issue 59 of Boiling Point (the magazine of the Household Energy Network – HEDON):

UNHCR – cooking options in refugee situations

The International Network on household energy in humanitarian settings has a library on fuel considerations.

Institution of Civil Engineers engineer’s toolkit for a developing world:

The International Network on household energy in humanitarian settings has a library on fuel considerations.

Practical action has technical worksheets on:
Case studies/programme evaluations