In Burkina Faso, solar in humanitarian settings is gaining ground

A solar energy power plant in Zaktubi, near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo by: Ludovic Marin / Reuters

Noellie Ouedraogo says she used to spend most of her day fetching water. The 29-year-old mother of six fled her home after jihadis attacked her village in northern Burkina Faso last year. She now lives in a makeshift site for people displaced within the country, located in the center north region. Until a few months ago, it took her eight hours a day to walk to and from the water pump and wait in line to fill jerrycans.

But everything changed in November, when the Norwegian Refugee Council installed a solar-powered water pump at her site, cutting the time she spent getting water to less than an hour.

“It’s helped a lot,” said Ouedraogo, standing in front of the water pump as people filled their cans.

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For the last five years, Burkina Faso has been wracked by jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, that’s killed thousands and displaced more than one million people. As humanitarians respond to the growing crisis, some organizations are pushing donors to invest in more climate-friendly, sustainable solutions, such as solar energy, rather than the temporary fixes typically used during crises.

“We really need to consider solar energy in [an] emergency,” said Manenji Mangundu, NRC’s country director for Burkina Faso and Niger. “People will always be in the [water] queue almost close to the whole day with the heat that is there, it’s like you’re punishing people.”

NRC installed the water pump in Ouedraogo’s site as part of a two-year pilot project and wants to convince donors and other organizations that applying green energy solutions during crises can work.

The solar pump is one of five that the group has installed in displaced person’s camps and one of a few such initiatives in the country. The tank supplies displaced people and the host community and has the capacity to serve approximately 2,000 people daily.

It also takes a fraction of the time to fill a jerrycan: 20 seconds as opposed to nearly two minutes with a manual pump, cutting the time people have to wait in line.

While the pump costs $40,000 — ten times more upfront than installing a manual pump, which is typically the case during crises, it will be more cost-effective in the long term and create a more durable solution for people, said Mangundu. Locals pay approximately 45 cents daily for three jerrycans of water for the pump’s upkeep and the NRC has trained people on how to repair the system so they can operate it on their own, he said.

“If these displaced people go back right now, this water system will continue to function. If in future there’s another crisis, if this water system is working we don’t need to invest again in the water system because we’ll know the water is there,” he said.

A competitive solution

The approach embodies the “humanitarian-development nexus,” a strategy the aid community is pushing, which focuses on the continuity of development in conjunction with a humanitarian response.

But many aid groups and donors admit that while the approach is good in theory, it has yet to be put into widespread practice. Many donors prefer to use what is tried and tested and cheaper, said Mangundu.

However, in Burkina Faso, growing volatility in some parts of the country has pushed donors to fund impromptu solar-powered projects. Last year, when Djibo town in the Sahel was blockaded by jihadis for several months without access to fuel for generators, Denmark supported Burkina Faso’s government in its decision to use solar energy to power water stations, since they could locally source the materials and didn’t have to rely on diesel from outside the city.

“The camp is bleeding money in exchange for fossil fuels but there’s more than enough sunlight falling on that camp to grind all that grain.”

— Lorin Symington, executive director, Solar Fire Concentration

“You couldn’t actually send a fuel tanker to Djibo for a long time without a high probability that it would be hijacked,” Steen Sonne Andersen, Denmark’s ambassador to Burkina Faso and Niger told Devex.

The project was crucial in Djibo, where violence had forced people in surrounding villages to seek refuge in the town, swelling the population from 45,000 to 187,000 inhabitants — all in need of water.

Andersen said though solar may not have made sense from an economic perspective ten years ago, in the last decade the cost of solar panels has come down 80%, making it a competitive solution.

Combatting energy poverty

Renewable energy experts also say that in impoverished countries, such as Burkina Faso, solar power can be crucial to creating decentralized energy solutions, because the electricity grid doesn’t reach remote places and generators aren’t always feasible because populations can’t afford diesel.

Burkina Faso’s government wants to cut energy dependence on its neighbors and meet 30% of electricity needs from solar panels by 2030. In September it inaugurated West Africa’s largest solar power plant, a $56 million project funded by the European Union and France’s development agency.

Lorin Symington, executive director of Solar Fire Concentration —a Finnish-based company that develops solar thermal solutions for developing countries — said solar thermal solutions, which harness the sun to heat things, are perfect for places like refugee camps with ongoing expenses based on creating heat. His company creates large-scale solar-powered ovens that are ideal for rural communities in developing countries.

Not only can solar energy minimize deforestation in the camps, as forests are being stripped off by people in need of wood to survive, but it also reduces pollution and costs for organizations. For example, when the World Food Programme distributes huge sacks of grains for people living in a refugee camp, people either smash them manually or grind them at a mill, which runs on diesel, Symington said.

“Every day you see a tanker truck of diesel going into [the camp], what you don't see is the €20,000 [$24,150] that went out of the camp to buy that fuel,” Symington said. “The camp is bleeding money in exchange for fossil fuels but there’s more than enough sunlight falling on that camp to grind all that grain,” he said.

This focus area, supported by the U.N. Development Programme, explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality and vice versa. Visit the Focus on: People and the Planet page for more.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.