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Refugees in Sudan reap benefits of clean cooking energy

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A switch to ethanol reduces risky trips in search of firewood, slows reforestation and creates healthier home environments for refugees in White Nile state.

By Sylvia Nabanoba and Vanessa Zola in White Nile State, Sudan

The glow from a matchstick lights up Alisa Deng’s face as she ignites her new ethanol cooking stove. The moment is significant for her and a thousand other families, as it marks the end of years of tedious and unsafe trips to gather firewood for cooking.

Since she fled conflict in South Sudan five years ago, the 35-year-old mother of three has had to undertake laborious day-long trips to an ever-dwindling forest in Sudan’s White Nile State to collect scarce firewood.

“I leave home as early as 6:00 am and cross the river in a boat to get to the forest,” she explains, adding that she travels with a group of other women for safety. “When we are many, we can help each other in case of a problem,” she adds.

Cooking with firewood creates multiple problems for refugees. It contributes to deforestation, poses risks to the women and girls who most frequently have to gather it, and produces harmful smoke and soot making their home environments unhealthy.

In a push to tackle those problems, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is partnering with Kenana, the largest sugar producing company in White Nile State, on a pilot project to help refugee families switch to clean-burning ethanol as a cooking fuel.

Use of the locally produced by-product of the sugar refining process that the company previously exported, is having an immediate impact on the lives of refugees like Alisa – starting with improved safety.

The hunt for wood took her into forests where scorpions and snakes are common, on foraging trips over tens of kilometres that frequently kept her out until after dark. It also brought her and other refugees into conflict with local people who also depend on the increasingly scarce resource both to cook with and to make shelters.

“Women and girls have reported being beaten up or sexually assaulted on their way to collect firewood,” explains Elhafiz Salih, UNHCR’s Assistant Protection Officer in White Nile State. “But using ethanol will lessen the risks [they] face by reducing the need or frequency of going out to collect firewood in insecure environments,” she adds.

In a 2019 assessment in White Nile State that UNHCR conducted to gather information on refugees’ needs and concerns, many of the women requested an alternative energy source that would reduce or eliminate the need for firewood.

Years of mechanized agriculture has led to deforestation and the removal of ground cover in a state that is home to more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees.

In addition to improving access to clean energy, the project, funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety under the International Climate Initiative (IKI), aims to improve waste management and encourage reforestation.

The pilot project has until now provided 800 refugee families in two of the State’s nine camps, together with 200 families from the host community, with stoves and ethanol, and more are on the way. At the end of the pilot, Kenana will continue to supply ethanol from the sugar factory, while a local workshop will take over the process of making the stoves.

The switch to ethanol also brings other benefits: it reduces the risk of accidental fires in flimsy shelters built from wood and plastic; it cooks faster than firewood and cuts particle air pollution in the home.

“Firewood produces a lot of smoke which affects the eyes and lungs. But this will be no more,” Alisa says, adding that the stove works very fast. “Food gets ready in minutes!”

The pilot project underway in Sudan is in line with a wider goal within UNHCR to bring clean energy solutions to all refugee settings by 2030. At the Global Refugee Forum in 2019, High Commissioner Filippo Grandi asked the international community to take up the Clean Energy Challenge – calling on business leaders, donors and governments to replace current energy sources that are costly and damaging to the environment with clean and modern solutions. If sufficiently funded and resourced, the Challenge will boost refugees’ resilience, provide light to refugee children to study at night and support businesses and connectivity.