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Refugee camps guzzle up billions in diesel

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By Macharia Kamau | December 25th 2018
An overview of the part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi seen on April 28, 2015. [AFP /Tony Karumba]

Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in far-flung areas are among the largest consumers of fuel in the country.

Most of them burn the costly diesel generators to power refugee camps and have to grapple with the high cost of fuel, which has in the recent past surged to record highs.

This is according to a new report by UK think-tank Chatham House.

The report, which while highlighting the hurdles experienced by aid organisations in powering refugee camps located in areas without grid connection also detail inefficiencies and wastefulness of operating the diesel generators for NGO operations.

Not only are the generators expensive to run but also pollute the environment - which is against the tenets of clean energy preached by the organisations, some of which have on paper committed to use alternatives to fossil fuels.

A few of the large organisations operating in marginalised areas could be easily gobbling up diesel and petrol worth more than Sh1 billion annually.

According to a report by Chatham House, seven aid agencies spent Sh670 million in Kenya last year to procure diesel and petrol to run their operations.

This was mostly in the two major refugee camps of Dadaab and Kakuma.

This would mean that the fuel bought by the seven aid agencies would account for about 0.4 per cent of the value of petroleum products imported to Kenya, which reached Sh265 billion in 2017.

“In Kenya, annual spending on diesel and petrol for the seven agencies surveyed was $6.7 million (Sh670 million) in 2017. The cost reflected the remote location of the camps and agencies’ overwhelming reliance on diesel for electricity generation,” said the London based think-tank.

“Replacing gensets (diesel generators) with solar systems makes sense because of the costs of diesel, the likelihood of protracted camp situations, and the opportunities that off-grid solar would offer for extending electricity access to refugees and local populations in Garissa and Turkana counties.”

The fuel consumed by the organisations shows a glaring lack of grid electricity at the refugee camps.

This is despite the drive to have every part of the country get access to electricity by 2022, with the Government already priding in connecting 70 per cent of Kenya to power.

Chatham House surveyed 21 organisations in Kenya, Burkina Faso and Jordan for the report.

It found out that due to the distance between Nairobi, where a majority of the organisations have their Kenyan headquarters, and the refugee camps, the NGOs in the country had the heaviest use for petrol and diesel.

“Each of the 21 humanitarian organisations surveyed used large amounts of diesel and petrol for vehicles. The heaviest use was in Kenya, with the average usage per organization reaching 335,000 litres a year,” said the report.

“Humanitarian operations are often located in remote parts of the hosting country without access to the electricity grid, and camps may be deliberately located as far away from other urban centres as possible. Delivering diesel and petrol to generators raises the costs of electricity. For example, Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya is approximately a 15-hour drive from the capital, Nairobi, and the journey crosses areas widely considered to pose a security risk.”

The report also notes the extensive waste among global humanitarian organisations and noted that they could save some half a billion dollars annually by switching from diesel and oil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

The report says the overall picture of energy use by humanitarian agencies is one ‘of inefficiency and wastefulness’, whereby they are heavily reliant on polluting, expensive supplies of diesel.

“Humanitarians are operating in tough environments where saving lives come first,” said Owen Grafham the co-author of the report. “Energy is not given much thought - diesel is the go-to fuel because it’s what agencies are used to and it’s quick-to-deploy.”

Yet researchers say that aid organisations are often paying extremely high prices for the electricity they generate.  Fuel supplies can be vulnerable and prices held hostage to black marketeers.

Lack of system management leads to poor maintenance and frequent breakdowns. The report noted that refugee camps, which have an average age of 18 years and are often home to many tens of thousands of people - put a strain on local communities and resources.

It estimates that around five per cent of humanitarian agency expenditure globally is spent on such fuels – equivalent to Sh120 billion ($1.2 billion) in 2017. It claims that “achievable changes in practice and technology” - such as solar power, could save the sector some half a billion US dollars in operational costs each year.

“In the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, UNHCR runs 99 generators to meet camp facility requirements, many of these have been found to be operating well below optimal utilisation levels,” said Chatham House.

“This implies not only capital inefficiency (too much capacity installed) but also operating inefficiency, because under-loaded generators use more fuel per kilowatt hour (kWh) and are more likely to break down. This problem is by no means unique to Kenya, with respondents from all three countries surveyed highlighting efficient operation as a challenge.”  

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