Notes from Geneva: Fire & Water

21 06 2011

Notes taken during the UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs in Geneva, 2009.

Monday 29th June: Integrated Solutions to Cooking Needs and Safe Water


Patrick Widner, Executive Director, Solar Cookers International

Valentine Ndibalema, Senior Technical Officer, UNHCR

The focus of the meeting is to discuss how food preparation needs and the provision of potable water can be met through an integrated approach of using simple technologies. Approximately one third of the world’s population still cooks over open fires utilizing traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal and other forms of biomass. Through the utilization of solar energy and solar cookers combined with fuel efficient stoves, hay baskets or fireless cookers, dependence on traditional fuels can be substantially reduced while decreasing environmental devastation and drastically reduce smoke related illnesses. Furthermore, utilizing solar energy to pasteurize water by use of the solar cooker can reduce water borne diseases such as those caused by e-coli, Hepatitis A and Rotaviruses.

Notes from Session

Speaker 1: Patrick Widen, Executive Director, Solar Cookers International

The challenges:

One third or more than 2 billion of the world’s population cooks over open fires fuelled by wood or other biomass materials. This contributes to degradation of our forests, produces smoke related diseases that cause more deaths than malaria and puts women, in particular, in danger while debilitating their strength and enslaving them to fuel gathering.

Approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to improved water and 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation. More than 4 billion serious cases of diarrhoea occur each year world wide and case more than 2 million deaths, most of them children.

 Challenges in introducing the technologies presented:

  • Availability of alternative fuels and water solutions
  • Cultural considerations including gender issues
  • Security, especially for women
  • Direct provision of fuel to residents and hygienic practices in refugee/IDP camps and dependency
  • Environmental degradation
  • Use of solar energy for other purposes such as lighting and pumping of water

 Achievements of solar cookers and integrated cooking:

  • The use of solar cookers by Solar Cookers International in humanitarian settings includes efforts in refugee camps of Aisha inEthiopia, Kakuma and Dadaab inKenya
  • 1800 solar cookers being prepared for Danish Refugee Council for Darfur region of Sudan. Training and follow up services  being provided
  • KoZon (Tchad Solaire) – successful manufacture of solar cookers and distribution of more than 15,000 inIridimi,Chadin addition to training. Replication has focused on camps of Touloum and Oure Casoni
  • Evaluation of all of these efforts are at
  • Solar cooking is only one of the technologies that can help to relieve the fuel shortage in humanitarian settings. There are limitations on its application due in part to climatic conditions and cultural acceptance.
  • Integrated cooking seeks to help alleviate these limitations by using a package of cooking methodologies including efficient stove, solar cooker and hay basket or heat retention device.

 Achievements of Safe Water:

The Solar Cooker International Water Project inKenyautilizes the Portable Microbiology (PML), the solar cooker, Water Pasteurization (WAPI) and ceramic water storage container. This group of technologies is known as the Safe Water Package.

  • The PML, combines two scientifically vetted tests to detect the presence of e.coli in water. The tests used are the Colilert MPN Test by IDEXX and the e.coli Count Petrifilm by the 3M company.
  • No formal education is required to learn these technologies; most people can be taught in two to three hours
  • The WAPI is used in combination with the tests to determine when water has been heated sufficiently in a solar cooker or in another manner to pasteurize the water. Heating water to a pasteurization temperature of 65 Degrees Celsius will kill Hepatitis A virus, Escherichia Coli, Shigella, cholera, typhoid, rotavirus, worms, Giardia, Ehtamoeba and cryptosporidium.
  • Training and use of the PML and WAPI has been implemented in a number of countries through government ministries and local NGOs.
  • This past year, representatives of UNHCR and UNHABITAT from a total of ten countries took part in training.
  • Application of the PML was used in Water Resources Management Authority inKenyain 2008 following an outbreak of cholera. 

Utilization of the PML and pasteurization of water is only one method to make water safe. Chlorine and products such as AQUATABS are other examples. The Global Water Initiative through eight major partners is also supporting efforts to make portable water available to all.

The way forward:  

Some of the issues to be considered are:

  • Promotion of integrated development with a focus on health, income generation and education
  • Relationships with local communities and host governments
  • Integrating cultural considerations into product design
  • Distribution and required extended services design to assist in adoption levels

 Speaker 2:

Valentine Ndibalema, Senior Technical Officer, UNHCR

  • Main challenges from UNHCR perspective are primarily community education, on-going extension services, capacity building of implementing partners, securing long term funding partners and cultural adaptations and adoption. 
  • Aside from the environmental benefits of solar cookers other benefits include time saving for women which allows them time for income generating activities, protection mechanism as women do not need to leave the camp as frequently to collect the fire wood
  • Solar cookers are just one of a diversified array of technologies using renewable energy sources in the humanitarian context – UNHCR is also using solar technology for lighting (lanterns and flashlights); and the Safe Water Package is used in water purification and pasteurisation.
  • Today we will look at where we stand vis-à-vis the application of these technologies, which began in the humanitarian setting in the early 1990s.

 Question: Which areas are these technologies being used in?

Response Patrick SCI: Used in Ethiopia for years. Going back toKenya (Dadaab and Kakuma). Next field programme –Darfur, in conjunction with Danish Refugee Council. Send trainers for two weeks, but constrained by security concerns.

Question: Why is the programme no longer ongoing inKenya? Is it being used elsewhere? Is UNHCR in talks with UNITO about its technologies?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: UNITO is still struggling with the issue of where to start. Solar cookers can be made by communities. The Danish Refugee Council trainers will go to Kenya, see what is being used, manufactured and disseminated, and take that learning toDarfur. As to the question of the programme not working, there are different types of programmes but still pilot sites. The cooker could not be distributed in all settings. Firstly, it involves cultural and behavioural change on the part of refugees – cultural relevance is important and if not matched to needs will mean that the technology is not adopted. Also, in Kenya, UNHCR distributes firewood and solar cookers. Where there is no shortage of firewood, refugees do not see the need to use the new technologies. However, in Tchad, there is literally nothing. UNHCR needs to distribute kerosene and wood – and both must be imported. So the programme is working where there is a shortage of biomass, and where there is resistance, there is wood. The program is likely to work in environments where there are restrictions by governments on collecting fire wood.

Question: Why is UNHCR is still distributing wood in Kakuma?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: UNHCR can only meet 30 per cent of total refugee fire wood needs, and now the Kenyan government has put in place new laws to ban firewood collection, so UNHCR and beneficiaries will be forced to use alternate methods of energy. Cooking technology alternatives should go hand-in-hand with strong extension services to increase level of community understanding and adoption.

Response Patrick Widner SCI: Solar cooking also provides income generation opportunities in Tchad through time savings in not collecting fire wood. Women are producing salt, woven products, etc.

Valentine Ndimbalema: Income generation in Tchad also includes the manufacture of cookers by women in camps.

Question: In Darfur, is UNHCR intending to use the solar cooker (CookIt)?

Response Patrick Widner SCI:  It may be more appropriate to use box cookers.

Question Why would the solar cookers not be culturally accepted?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: The main issues are: 1) reflected heat, the people think the cookers might be too hot to touch 2) that the reflection could damage the eyes and that 3) food can’t be stirred which makes some people think that cultural foods such as ’ugali’, which require regular stirring doesn’t taste the same, this seems to be unacceptable to men, but not women, who say food doesn’t taste any different. However, the technology is encouraging men to become involved in cooking. This issues stresses the need for extension services to support the role out of the new technology.

Comment With regards to the acceptance of the technology, we worked with it in Dadaab. The Somali refugees didn’t like it. Cultural foods cannot be cooked, need to look at the way it is used.

Question What is the sustainability of the continued education and extension services?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: It depends on the situation. In Tchad, for example, there are established leaders within the camp. They worked to increase awareness of the technologies to overcome resistance, starting with small groups. After a few months, the response was overwhelming. It depends on common mobilisation and awareness building – and also on variable factors such as the weather. If there is no sun, there is no option to use the solar cooker. In one camp in Tchad, we were able to demonstrate the technology in one day. The next day, the weather turned bad and the refugees questioned how they could cook if the sun wasn’t out, so the dependence on weather conditions provides another challenge for the adoption of this new technology. UNHCR is encouraging use of the solar cooker as part of an integrated alternate energy approach. For example, the solar cooker can’t be used in the early morning (lack of sun), so in Ethiopia, we are encouraging people to use kerosene to make their breakfast, use the solar cooker during the day and keep food warm in a hay basket, made locally, for the evening meal. If you consider the range of cooking and energy sources used in homes inNairobi, people don’t just rely on a single means to cook – they have choice of a stove, or a microwave, which is particularly important due to the power cuts. 

Question: How does solar technology affect income generation?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: It decreases the time women – who are the ones looking for firewood – have to spend on that activity – anything between 4-6 hours in East Kenya is saved if they use the solar cooker. That time is then available for women to develop livelihoods via income generating activities. Also, the solar cooker doesn’t require as much watching as a pot.

Question Do you have any evidence of the impact this new technology has on SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) incidence and to what extent has this driven the roll out of the product?

Response Patrick Widner SCI: Yes, we have undertaken an evaluation of a particular project and its impact on SGBV, it is available on our website.  I am particularly moved by the stories of the violence against refugee women as they collect firewood, not just perpetrated by the military outside of camps but by local host communities. I know of cases where women out collecting firewood who have had their feet stoned.

Valentine Ndimbalema: There has been a reduction in tensions between host communities and refugees, where the reduction in the supply and distribution of firewood has become a cause of SGBV incidents. However, firewood collection is also an income generating activity and despite women adopting and using the solar cookers they are still leaving the camps to collect firewood to sell.  So if solar cookers can reduce the movement of women in and out of camp environments it has the potential to reduce the incidents of SGBV.

Question: What about the implications for public health? Is there a corresponding decrease in the number of accidents, with fewer trips being made to collect firewood? Do you have any studies on indoor pollution?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Not on the solar cooker, on ethanol and coal briquettes inNepal. We are carrying out an assessment inEthiopia, but that is with regards to quality control. Where the solar cooker is used, cooking is done outside, or the kitchen is open. Where smoke inhalation problems are encountered is where kitchens require a chimney.

Question Can you point to a success story? We have had problems promoting best practice.

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Yes. In Tchad, and also in Nepal, where it has been shown that two families can share one stove. InKenya, the success is on and off. The government’s new restrictive rules on firewood collection will have an impact on the project success. Also, implementing partners like GTZ were receiving cookers from promoters but no extension services. We need to go to local staff and ensure they are well grounded in the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of the solar cooker. In Tchad, they can be provided for 8 euros including staff training, or 6 euros for the cooker itself. The cookers have a lifespan of six months, so we make a budget allowance of 16 euros per family per year.

Question At last week’s standing committee, the Kenyan delegation spoke at some length on environmental degradation associated with hosting large refugee populations. How is that impacting on UNHCR’s job?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Energy is politics. InKenya, refugees will be affected by the new guidelines. Environmental degradation is not only an energy issue. The Kenyan government is making land available for a new camp, but it is only a few kilometres away from Dadaab, which was intended to host 90,000 refugees – current population now stands at almost 300,000. It also depends on the partner. We will have to draw water form the same aquifer. There are challenges from all perspectives. In Darfur, we had the funds to start the project, but then the partner was no longer working there. Now we are working with the Danish Refugee Council, but we need to build capacity, which is why we are conducting the two week training course. There are other factors at play too. In Tchad, UNHCR has to import fuel from Cameroon. There are impacts and costs from transportation, distribution, storage.

Question: Do you see a corresponding decrease in tensions between host communities and refugee populations?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: In respect to host communities, what you have are great disparities in the size of populations, particularly around Dadaab. In Tchad, you are talking about 500 villagers compared with 20,000 refugees in a camp. Water sources are a cause of tension, as are livelihoods. If there is no development programme, you cannot build in an ongoing way; progress doesn’t tally between humanitarian and development planning. We need long-term thinking especially in protracted situations. For example, will donors continue to buy kerosene of 10-15 years?

Patrick Widner SCI: We have just met with UNHCR inKenya and will work on a joint programme for camps and local communities, but we are talking about nomadic societies in many cases, so the answer may be to start a mobile program.

Question: With regards to water sanitation and pasteurisation, when you are boiling water it’s easy to know when you reach boiling point, but what about pasteurisation – it’s more difficult.

Response Patrick Widner SCI: We use an enclosed pasteurisation indicator made of wax; it melts at pasteurisation temperature and can be used over and over again. It’s an effective tool that I have seen an eight-year-old girl train a community to use.

Valentine Ndimbalema: One of the challenges we face is that refugees may think water is safe, but in the event of a flood, even clean water becomes dirty.

Comment: In Dadaab, the water provided is clean, but the containers used by refugees and the way they are handled means the water becomes contaminated.

Patrick Widner SCI: That’s why we have a ceramic water container with a small opening at the top; it’s too small to put a container in. The water must be sourced from the tap at the bottom.

Question: Given the cultural issues which have been raised, to what extent do you involve refugee communities in the design of the cookers?

Response Patrick Widner SCI: In Tchad, a group called Tchad Solare is involved in all major decisions. The camp is divided into zones. Refugees voluntarily went to the local Tchad women; they speak the same language and have formed their own NGO, Tchad Solare. There is also a Dutch engineer who has addressed the difficulties in cooking traditional Sudanese food. He has adjusted the design to match the needs of the local population. UNITO is looking into what he has done. His name is Derk Rijks; he is from a Dutch non-profit called KoZon.

Valentine Ndimbalema: In conclusion, dissemination is still a big problem; uniformity is not there between NGOs, which is something the Women’s Commission is trying to do – standardise household energy needs. But we need your advocacy. Energy is “nobody’s business”; but if we want to move beyond the environmental discussion, if we want to protect women, we are left hanging, there is no agency – we depend on our mandates, we started talking with UNITO but it is a question of commitment, a question of working with NGOs and individual institutions.

Patrick Widner SCI: Outside of the camps, we have been working with UNHabitat very well.

Valentine Ndimbalema: This is everyone’s issue. In Dadaab, the problem is still there, but the energy agenda is not a high priority, even though we have had to go from 60 to 100 kilometres away to get firewood, and still then, we are not meeting demand.