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Low carbon energy and conflict: A new agenda
Authors: Frauke Urban Jeremy Lind
Issue 59: Energy in Conflict and Emergency Relief

1. Introduction

Global climate change is considered one of the greatest threats to development efforts. It poses risks to humans, the environment and the economy (IPCC, 2007). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that the global mean surface temperature has risen by 0.74 ± 0.18 °C during the last century. This increase has been particularly significant over the last 50 years (IPCC, 2007). There has been considerable concern that the impacts of climate change, including more unpredictable rainfall patterns and more extreme climate events, may cause armed conflict (Moon 2007; Sachs 2008). It has been proposed that adaptation may reduce conflict by helping societies to live better with the consequences of climate change. However, there is still no clear understanding of how climate change relates to the dynamics of contemporary conflict or how adaptation might reduce conflict (Lind et al. 2010). To date, there has been relatively little exploration of how low carbon energy might relate to conflict even though both are high on current development agendas. Yet, the provision of low carbon energy may improve livelihoods in areas of conflict. The distributed nature of renewable energy technologies (RET), meaning they can be easily provided to households off-grid, makes them well-suited to responding to the needs of displaced people as well as populations living in areas under the control of armed groups where the state may fail to provide services. Renewable energy products include solar cookers, lamps and panels, biogas cookers, and micro wind turbines. On the opposite end of the low carbon energy spectrum are large-scale projects such as hydro-electric schemes and wind farms, which many developing countries are pursuing to increase energy supply and expand industrial production. In countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, these projects are raising long-standing governance questions around the role of international capital, unequal power relations, and how livelihoods can best be supported in local areas where projects are being developed.

This article sets forth some initial thoughts on how low carbon energy and conflict are connected, using case studies from Darfur and northern Kenya to illustrate some of the opportunities and challenges of promoting the expansion and use of low carbon energy in unstable and conflict-affected areas. How can low carbon energy technologies help support the livelihoods of households living with conflict? Furthermore, how might low carbon energy projects relate to the dynamics of conflict in weakly governed contexts?

2. Exploring the connections between conflict and low carbon development

Conflict is an important focus of current development programmes and practice. Meeting the Millennium Development Goals and related targets require significant progress in states that are weakly governed and unstable. Conflict and armed violence are common features of these fragile states. Fragile states include countries that have recently experienced severe armed conflict such as Sudan and Afghanistan, countries emerging from conflict such as Burundi and Timor Leste, and increasingly unstable countries that may be sliding into more widespread conflict such as Yemen and Eritrea.

Strengthening the livelihoods of populations living with conflict and violence requires measures both to strengthen governance and improve institutions as well as measures to help people live better with the everyday impacts of conflict. These impacts include displacement, destruction of property, destabilisation that undermines trust and the smooth functioning of markets and other institutions, and depletion of assets as people seek to protect their lives and livelihoods.

The provision of low carbon energy can help to overcome some of the livelihood problems faced by populations living with armed conflict. Low carbon development includes using less energy, switching from fossil fuels to low carbon energy and technology, protecting and promoting natural carbon sinks, and formulating policies that promote low carbon practices (DFID 2009: 58). Efforts to promote low carbon development in fragile and conflict-affected contexts confront the same longstanding difficulties that plague development interventions in general. These include questions of governance, power, and politics surrounding equity and fair distribution of the benefits of development actions. These challenges are magnified in fragile and conflict-affected settings, while development is expected to contribute to more peaceful and stable outcomes.

Current debates on low carbon energy and development are framed around issues of access to energy, new technologies, innovation, and finance. However, questions of power, governance, and how to make institutions work better in the interests of poorer and more vulnerable social groups are often neglected in current scientific, policy and practitioner debates. Low carbon energy and development are often treated as separate from the social and political realms within which decisions are reached that determine who is to benefit and who may miss out.

Different options for achieving low carbon development and how to make it beneficial for the poor have been mapped out (Urban 2010, Urban and Sumner 2009; Mulugetta and Urban 2010). Low carbon development means reducing emissions for high income countries and emerging economies. For low income countries and least developed countries with already very low emissions it is not about cutting emissions, but about the benefits and opportunities low carbon development can bring, for example green jobs, access to electricity, and distributive effects. The implementation of low carbon development further depends upon the resources a country has, such as forest resources or wind and hydropower resources. As a result, low carbon development strategies are different in various contexts and need to take into account the national priorities and capabilities along with considerations of local knowledge (Urban, 2010). This is particularly important in situations of conflict where competing priorities at the local and national level and regional links must be carefully considered.

3. Learning from practice

Research and development in renewable energy technologies is increasing as both donors and aid-recipient states seek low carbon development pathways that promote growth without increasing carbon emissions. Many new renewable energy technologies are coming on stream and are increasingly becoming available in local markets. Some of these technologies can improve the livelihoods of people living with conflict and/or in areas that are beyond the reach of the state, including pockets within states that are intentionally neglected by political leaders or are under the control of non-state armed groups. The provision of these technologies through aid organisations and markets can lead to better livelihood outcomes, as the following case study on Darfur illustrates. The second case study highlights some of the risks confronting low carbon energy projects in weakly governed contexts.

3.1 Solar Cooker Project in Chad

It should to be noted that although the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children mentions the Darfur Solar Cooker project, the success of the project has not been evaluated externally. Information about the project comes from sources supplied by the Jewish World Watch including an interview with the programme leader and project documents.

The armed conflict in the region of Darfur in Sudan has immense impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. It is estimated that up to 2.5 million Darfurians are being displaced and have fled to refugee camps in Darfur and the neighbouring countries Chad and the Central African Republic (Save Darfur 2008). In some camps in Chad, solar cookers are being used as alternatives to fuelwood collection. Fuelwood collection...

“is traditionally thought of as a ‘women's task’, since it is a part of the cooking process. Rarely is cooking fuel provided by the humanitarian community, and even more rarely do men collect the wood. The burdens associated with collecting fuel fall almost exclusively on women and girls” (WCRWC 2006a:1).

For collecting fuelwood, the women and girls have to leave the safety of their camps and risk “rape, assault, abduction, theft, exploitation or even murder” (WCRWC 2006a:1). The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children advocates for alternative energy options to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls associated with fuel wood collection (WCRWC 2006a; 2006b).

In this context, the Solar Cooker Project, which provides solar cookers to refugee women and girls as an alternative to fuelwood, is an example of how low carbon energy can help improve people’s lives as well as reduce pressure on the environment in a context of instability. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Dutch foundation KoZon and Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) International started supplying solar cookers to the refugee camps Iridimi and Ouré Cassoni in Chad. In 2006, they supplied roughly 7000 people with solar cookers (WCRWC 2006b). Today, the NGO Jewish World Watch (JWW) leads the solar cooker project which currently operates in the refugee camps Iridimi, Touloum and Ouré Cassoni and benefits about 60,000 people (JWW 2010).

JWW works with the local NGO TchadSolaire, CARE International, which runs the refugee camps, and the UNHCR (Andres 2010). “The Solar Cooker Project not only protects women, but also provides them with income opportunities through manufacturing solar cookers and training others to use the cookers. This gives the women a sense of pride to be able to contribute to their household.” (JWW 2010:1).

Most of the refugees come from farming backgrounds and because they have been displaced they have lost access to their primary income from farming. Many of the women and girls are illiterate. Being trained for making the solar cookers increases their ability to earn their own income, although it might not be enough to make a living. Each family in the refugee camp gets two solar cookers for making the main meals and a sauce or vegetables. The cookers are distributed by the NGO for free. Every women and girl of the age of 15 or older gets trained how to use and produce a solar cooker. The “CooKit” cookers are made of cardboard and foil and are manufactured locally in the refugee camps by the women refugees. There is a small manufacturing facility in each camp where the cookers are made. The cookers are easy to use and maintain, reduce pressure on forests and woodland and are a climate-friendly low carbon way of providing energy for cooking (Andres 2010; JWW 2010). A survey from Iridimi refugee camp shows that the frequency of collecting fuel wood has decreased due to the use of solar cookers. Before their introduction, more than 70% of the surveyed women and girls collected fuel wood between 3 - 7 times per week. Since using the solar cooker more than half of the women and girls do not collect fuelwood at all, while about a quarter of the women and girls collect fuelwood only once a week (JWW 2007).

The JWW Solar Cooker Project shows that the provision of renewable energy products can improve people’s lives in conflict-affected areas. The project director notes, “The solar cookers contribute to the stability in the area. The reason many of the women and girls have been attacked when they leave to collect firewood is partly a conflict about resources such as fuel wood. They are cutting down trees that the locals also cut down for firewood… In contrast, the sun is for free, it is abundant in the area and there is no fighting about it” (Andres 2010).

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children similarly found that tensions between the locals and the refugees in Chad involve competitions over fuelwood as local supplies have decreased and market prices have increased in recent years (WCRWC 2006b).

Despite the positive effects of the solar cooker project, there are practical and cultural drawbacks. One drawback is the low lifespan of the “CooKit” solar cooker which is an average of only a few months (JWW 2007). In addition, it takes longer to cook with solar cookers than it does using fuelwood. Yet, JWW reports that women are able to undertake other tasks such as visiting the local market or childcare while cooking with solar cookers since the cooking time is longer and constant supervision is not required (Andres 2010). The materials used for making the cooker are currently being imported from Europe which reduces the sustainability of the project. Finally, the solar cookers require a rethinking of traditional cooking methods and need to become culturally acceptable. However these trade-offs are minor considering the harm that is potentially avoided by not needing to collect fuel wood. Another key issue relates to issues of equity and distribution. Although each family in the refugee camp receives a solar cooker and each woman receives training (Andres 2010), this could not be verified.

3.2 Wind power development in northern Kenya

The push to expand low carbon energy in weakly governed contexts carries significant risks. These are apparent in northern Kenya, where a Dutch-led consortium of international and Kenyan investors is developing what will be the largest wind farm in Africa when it is completed in 2012. Northern Kenya is a historically marginalised region that is inhabited by interacting groups of livestock-keepers. There is a long history of livestock raiding and banditry in the region.

The livelihoods of the region’s pastoralists have been chronically insecure and disparities in wealth are increasing (Fratkin 1998; Buchanan-Smith and Lind 2005). Many herders are seeking alternative economic activities, even though their options to do so remain limited. Yet northern Kenya is poised for a development transformation. The main road linking the central Kenya highlands with the Ethiopian border is being tarmacked for the first time. The Chinese government is seeking to provide financing for the construction of a port facility in Lamu on the Kenyan coast, which will serve a proposed rail-line and oil pipeline that would cross northern Kenya to Juba in southern Sudan. The port facility is currently undergoing an environmental impact assessment so the fate of the plans is still unclear.

Against this backdrop, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project (LTWP) is constructing a US$760m wind farm in the Marsabit region of northern Kenya with lending from the African Development Bank acting as the lead arranger. Up to 365 wind turbines are to be constructed on the Chalbi Desert plains to the east of Lake Turkana, providing an estimated 17% of Kenya’s power generation to the national grid from a unique low-level jet stream that generates consistently windy conditions when it is fully operational. Eventually the LTWP project plans to generate fully 300MW as base load power by introducing a “wind storage facility” (Personal communication, Lake Turkana Wind Power 2010).

The area of Marsabit in northern Kenya where the turbines are being constructed is off-grid and is sparsely inhabited by pastoralists who use the surrounding rangelands seasonally to support mixed-species livestock herds. LTWP intends to generate US$5m annually in revenue for area development projects, which will be distributed by a specially-established trust. So far, the consortium has invested in extensive road upgrades to transport equipment from Nairobi to the site (Vourlias 2009). Unsurprisingly, the project has been backed by county political leaders in Marsabit as well as the area parliamentarian. The area Member of Parliament (MP) has assisted the consortium to appoint local leaders who are helping to identify local people to be employed by the project. Further, consultations have been carried out over four years through local politicians and church leaders.
Figure 1: The downstream Turkwel gallery forest that depends so significantly on the flow of the river, and which is used by local communities for drought reserve grazing, farming, beekeeping and collection of wild foods. Disruptions in the flow of the river caused by the damming may have long-term repercussions on the forest cover and tree diversity. (Jeremy Lind)

Pastoralists in northern Kenya have not benefited from previous energy development projects. Most of the region outside of the largest centres and district capitals is off-grid. The largest existing energy project to date in the region is the Turkwel Gorge Dam, completed in 1990, which supplies hydro-power to the national grid although it operates at under capacity due to the lack of water. Stave et al. (2005) found that the riparian forest in the downstream arid floodplain, which provides seasonal grazing for the region’s Turkana livestock-keepers as well as wild foods and other forest products that support livelihoods, was sensitive to flooding. They concluded that preserving the width and diversity of the forest (essential to the wellbeing of the pastoralists) would depend on a flow regime that permitted periodic downstream flooding. However, experience to date has shown that a stable supply of energy from the dam, and hence the maintenance of appropriate water levels which is still below capacity due to the lack of water, has trumped any consideration of the livelihood needs of downstream Turkana herders. The state has provided little in the way of basic services or social support to the Turkana, whose livelihoods remain deeply insecure due to chronic insecurity and a decreasing ability to manage the impacts of droughts that are an altogether normal feature of this environment.

Figure 2: The Turkwel River Gorge in the foreground. To the left of the photo a straight line can be seen. This is the bush clearing for the power lines taking power away from local Turkana and Pokot pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities, to Kenya’s large urban centres. The area around the dam is largely off-grid so the local communities do not benefit.


The links between low carbon energy and conflict are relatively unexplored. We used these two very different case studies to demonstrate how low carbon energy developments can improve people’s lives and livelihoods in conflict areas. However, positive outcomes are not guaranteed. As with any development intervention, much depends on how governance issues are handled and whether local livelihood needs are addressed.

The provision of low carbon energy technology can help to improve the livelihoods of populations in conflict-affected areas, which may be off-grid, neglected by the state and/or under the control of armed groups. Solar cookers have helped refugee women and girls in Chad to avoid the risks involved with fuelwood collection. This protected them from potential harm they encounter when collecting fuelwood. The women have also been supported to make the solar cookers and train others to use them, giving them an additional source of income as there is a demand in the camps for affordable alternative energy sources.

Many developing countries are now seeking to develop low carbon energy supplies. Hydro-electric schemes, which fell out of favour for a time in the 1980s and 1990s, are back on development agendas. In Kenya, the largest wind farm in Africa is being constructed in an area of chronic conflict and armed violence. The scale of the project promises to generate significant development benefits for local communities. However, the extent to which these benefits are shared fairly and also whether the project might help address historical development inequalities are huge challenges. Meaningful local consultation and robust measures to transparently manage development funds generated by the project will be key to determining the long-term success of the project. By failing to address the livelihood needs of local pastoralists, the project might otherwise perpetuate the longstanding neglect of herding groups and create new tensions in an already unstable environment.


Andres R., 2010. Interview with the Director of the Solar Cooker Project Darfur.

Buchanan-Smith M., Lind J., 2005. Armed violence and poverty in northern Kenya: a case study for the armed violence and poverty initiative. Centre for International Cooperation and Security, Department of Peace Studies. University of Bradford.

Department for International Development. 2009. Eliminating World
Poverty: Building our Common Future. DFID White Paper, London.

Fratkin E., 1998. Ariaal pastoralists of Kenya: surviving drought and development in
Africa’s arid lands. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

IPCC Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change. Available here

Jewish World Watch, 2010. Help the women of Darfur: Factsheet January 2010. Available here(pdf link)

Jewish World Watch, 2007. Solar Cooker Project Evaluation. Available here(pdf link)

Lind J., Ibrahim M., Harris K., 2010. Climate change and conflict: moving beyond the impasse. IDS In Focus Policy Briefing. Issue 15. IDS, Brighton.

Lake Turkana Wind Power, 2010. 11 June 2010. (Personal communication)

Moon B. K., 2007. A climate culprit in Darfur. Washington Post, 16 June 2007.

Mulugetta Y., Urban F., 2010. Deliberating on low carbon development. Energy Policy, doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.05.049

Sachs J., 2008. Land, water, and conflict. Newsweek. July 7-14, 2008.

Save Darfur, 2008. Darfur Update. Available here

Stave J., Oba G., Stenseth N.C., Nordal I., 2005. Environmental gradients in the Turkwel riverine forest, Kenya: hypotheses on dam-induced vegetation change. Forest Ecology and Management, 212: 184-198.

Urban F., 2010. Pro-poor low carbon development and the role of growth. International Journal of Green Economics, 4 (1): 82-93.

Urban F., Sumner A., 2009. After 2015: Pro-poor low carbon development. IDS In Focus Policy Briefing 9.4. IDS, Brighton. Available here

Vourlias C., 2009. The wind may carry a solution for Kenya. Washington Post. November 21, 2009.

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (WCRWC), 2006a. Finding Trees in the Desert: Firewood collection and alternatives in Darfur. New York: WCRWC.

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (WCRWC), 2006b. Beyond Firewood: Fuel Alternatives and Protection Strategies for Displaced Women and Girls. New York: WCRWC. Available here(pdf link)

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