Cleaner fuel, environmental rehabilitation and conservation in Bangladesh
The project in brief
The project started in January 2018.
The project is ongoing as continual needs must be meet for refugees and host communities, plus the impact must be measured over several years. This includes soil and water quality, and afforestation rates over deforestation rates and air quality. These must all be routinely measured to demonstrate the improvement in quality of life for both communities.
The project focuses in reducing fuel poverty, while addressing protection and social cohesion by focusing on cleaner fuel, environmental rehabilitation and conservation best practices.
Address the UNHCR protection mandate concentrating on fuel, lighting and health, coupled with the legitimate concerns of the Government of Bangladesh with regards to hosting a large refugee influx and the demands on the environment, shrinking natural resources and security.
Refugees hosted in Bangladesh were regulated by restrictions on access to work and mobility. These restrictions slowly increased as the refugee influx peaked in 2017. Current restrictions include on access to work, education, energy and telecommunications connectivity. The country has modern and impressive environmental compliance laws, however, they are not always enforced in country. The mass influx has exacerbated the pressures on the environment.
Main activities of the Good Practice
The project has 3 basic components
- Provide protection support to refugees with cleaner fuels and a better day-to-day natural environment.
- Rehabilitate a severely impacted natural environment.
- Provide energy and environment projects and programmes that benefit both communities (refugees and host community) which complement government strategy, national guidelines and sector best practices.
The lack of Energy & Environment (E&E) funding and expertise across the humanitarian sector has always limited the potential of high-end delivery to refugees and host communities of appropriate response during emergency or protracted periods. Environment interventions have traditionally looked to planting and fuel-efficient stoves, while energy traditionally has had no obvious UN or INGO “Energy champion”. Responding to emergencies has not historically resulted in a strong E&E response.
As the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar swelled, the urgent need for fuel for cooking became urgent. Furthermore, negative media appeared quite early in the national press regarding the impact of the refugee population on the environment, creating tension and causing social cohesion issues in the area. As the refugees arrived, forest land was cleared for the establishment of camps, and a traditional route taken by migratory elephants was cut off leaving 5 herds of elephants in forested areas cut off from their migratory route. This coupled with a sharp rise in deforestation for cooking fuel that lead to a shrinking water table, showed clearly that new approaches and trusted good practices were required fast.
UNHCR began a partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to introduce good practices for “Human Elephant Contact” to assure the safety of refugees and host community households. A proven model used in Asia and Africa was introduced consisting of Elephant Watch Towers (EWT’s) and Elephant Response Teams (ERT’s).
Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) was piloted in August of 2018 on 6,000 households and rolled out across the camps thereafter. Once fuel was provided, stream rehabilitation began and UNHCR formed a partnership with the Centre for Natural Resource Studies (CNRS). This also involved extensive planting to stabilise soil, regeneration of soil and rebalancing of the impact on the environment. The Government of Bangladesh (GOB) and media continually highlighted the environmental strain refugees put on the environment.
UNHCR Bangladesh learned a lot regarding how to monitor and evaluate good practices/approaches for LPG during the roll out across the camps (finishing in March 2019). Additionally, a 30,000 household commitment for LPG was made for the host community by UNHCR. UNHCR with partner IUCN also started a biomass assessment to measure the impact LPG had made for communities and the environment. With a joint distribution across host communities between IOM and UNHCR at the level of 10,000 households, the assessment produced findings which highlighted a massive benefit financially to host communities and a shared improvement to the natural environment for both communities, with improved nutrition and health and resulted in a drop of nearly 60% of on-going deforestation within the host community. The reduction in fuel poverty within the host community has led to improvement in tensions toward the refugees from the media and host community.
The positive results of the LPG intervention, driven by protection and environmental concerns, has led to the linking of all environmental indicators to reduced deforestation as a documented “Good Practice” within UNHCR Bangladesh. This can be used and replicated in other displacement settings where appropriate.
Refugees, the hosting country, all donor governments, NGO’s and INGO’s, Financial Institutions, a number of UN agencies and private sector companies involved in cleaner fuels and renewable energy companies (both national and international). These include:
- The Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC)
- Forestry Department (FD)
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
- Centre for Natural Resource Studies (CNRS)
- The World Bank (WB)
- TOTAL (private sector)
- OMERA (Private sector)
- International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
- The Energy and Environment Technical Working Group (EETWG) (20 organisations)
Challenges and how they were overcome
UNHCR has never provided 100% coverage of fuel in a refugee setting using LPG, with a refugee population unfamiliar with the fuel or stove technology. UNHCR traditionally is not an Energy and Environment focused organisation and had very few lessons learned or few experienced Experts to draw on. Furthermore, UNHCR added Conservation to the operational focus by committing to supporting the shrinking forests, national parks and wild life. The nation media from the outset were negative regarding the impact of the refugee influx on the environment, conservation and natural resources, which was heavily under the spot light.
How they were overcome
A lack of dedicated E&E experts from an emergency response team perspective meant the response was under-resourced in comparison to other sectors. However, the operation committed to covering 100k refugee households and 30k households in the host community with LPG. This decision allowed a damaged environment time to breath. The lack of traditional partners working in energy was overcome with a high level of private sector partnership engagement and numerous RFP’s. New partnerships were formed with non-traditional partners to facilitate ambitious programming for environmental rehabilitation, conservation and protection.
Results of the Good Practice
- Deforestation has dropped by 79% in refugee camps and 53% in host communities. From 365k tons at the height of the influx to 37k tons by November 2019 (lower than pre influx levels).
- A total coverage of 150ha of shrubs and trees have been planted by UNHCR and partners CRNS, IUCN and BRAC, allowing soil recovery and stream rehabilitation to reach 2.5km in 2019.
- This approach has allowed numerous unique and first-time pilots in the E&E sector to be carried out to improve the day to day lives of refugees and host communities, including biological water treatment plants, pressure cookers for fuel efficiency and improved diet habits.
How the project meets the GCR Objectives
Objective 1: Ease the pressures on host countries
The LPG coverage provided by UNHCR and IOM has covered 100% of households in camp areas and on gonging distribution targeting to reach 55k HHs in the host community cumulatively. For every 10,000 LPG cylinders distributed, 30 jobs are created - 15 fulltime and 15 part time. This assures that job creation benefits both communities. The market dynamic has changed significantly, and fire wood demand and price has fallen as a result, making fire wood cheaper for households that have not received LPG.
The sustainable forestry rate in 2017 was regarded as 95k tons per year. This figure is now down to 37k tons per year, which is well within the sustainable forest threshold. The demand on host community resources has dropped significantly and water, soil and air quality has improved across the peninsula.
Furthermore, the Elephant Response teams (ERT’s) are present in both communities and have responded to 118 incidents over two years. Snake mitigation advocacy and “rescue and release” interventions have allowed humans and wild life to cohabitate safely together.
All of the environment and energy activities could only have taken place due to the distribution of LPG as it provided a “breathing space” for the environment, by reducing high levels of deforestation. This also contributed to reducing conflict and tensions between refugee and host communities, providing a space for environmental rehabilitation to start, and for a renewed focus on renewables and energy efficient planning.
Objective 2: Enhance refugee self-reliance
All refugee households receiving LPG list the following positives which add to their resilience;
- No conflict with the host community collecting firewood
- No breathing issues in winter and less time spent receiving medical attention.
- Rarely does confrontation happen with Elephants or snakes
- More time to spend with family
- More time to rest for the elderly
- Less time spent washing smokie clothes
- More time for children to attend temporary learning spaces
The E&E strategy covers 2019-2023. Throughout this period, water, soil and air samples will be measured scientifically along with deforestation rates in the host community. A lot more collaboration inside and outside the camps is required with other UN agencies and NGO’s to ensure the pattern of improved indicators around environment and health continues.
Paul McCallion, Senior Energy Officer, UNHCR Bangladesh