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Photo: Market place in Azraq camp / Russell Watkins, DFID | Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The solar powered refugee camp

Friday, June 16, 2017

Al Azraq refugee camp in Jordan is home to 36,000 people, mostly those fleeing from the conflict in Syria. The camp is in the middle of the desert, with constant strong winds and temperatures that often exceed 46⁰c. While conditions in the camp are not squalid, they are a far cry from what many of the people living there are used to - there is no electricity and no light once it gets dark, either in the shelters or in the streets of the camp. 

The IKEA Foundation’s Brighter lives for refugees campaign has donated almost €9 million to UNHCR (who run Azraq camp), €1 from every lightbulb or lamp sold in IKEA stores. Initially this money was used to buy dual technology lamps for each household, which provide both light and a source of power for charging mobile phones. Though excellent for these two purposes, having just one light source between one household means that anyone leaving the shelter must either do it in darkness or leave the rest of the family with no light. Women are particularly vulnerable in the camp after dark, and are often confined to their homes once the sun has set due to a lack of street lamps. Additionally, though the lamps do offer power to charge mobile phones, they cannot cope with larger items such as fridges or systems to cool shelters.

The Brighter lives project has now been scaled up with the introduction of a two-megawatt solar plant built through a partnership between the IKEA Foundation, the government of Jordan, UNHCR and private solar company Mustakbal. The plant means that people now have access to electricity in their homes, as well as providing street lamps, lengthening the time for evening activities. 50 refugees from the camp were trained and employed to manage the plant under the supervision of Mustakbal, empowering them by giving them practical skills which they can use in the future, potentially to rebuild infrastructure on a return to Syria. Any surplus energy produced goes back into the Jordan national grid meaning that surrounding communities also benefit from the project. 

By using solar power to bring electricity to refugee camps, refugees who have otherwise lost everything can at least normalise their situations slightly and continue to get on with their lives. Power for them means children can study in the evening, women can walk around the camp after dark, and left over food can be preserved - small things that can change people’s lives.