Providing innovative solutions in humanitarian emergencies

Published 10 July 2017 in:

The Sustainable Development Goals are at the heart of Swedish efforts to provide innovative solutions in humanitarian emergencies. One of many examples are the solar panels at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

In April this year, the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR inaugurated solar panels at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, making it the first refugee camp in the world to be powered by renewable energy. Sweden works actively to support and promote Swedish companies that offer pioneering solutions in the fields of health, sanitation and renewable energy in humanitarian emergencies.

Until recently, practicalities like charging a mobile phone to keep in touch with family and friends, reading and doing homework, or going out after dark were beyond the reach of the Azraq camp residents. Since the camp opened in 2014 to accommodate refugees fleeing the war in Syria, electricity has been at best sporadic. In a desert area which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in summer and close to freezing in winter, electricity for heating and cooling is a pressing health issue, not just a practicality.

Engulfed by conflict, Jordan is to a large extent dependent on foreign aid to handle the humanitarian crisis brought on by the war in Syria. Jordan is one of the most resource-poor countries in the world and imports most of its energy. The addition of more than half a million refugees to the population has exacerbated Jordan’s limitations in these fields. In light of chronic underfunding by the UN, the role of a private sector actor, such as the IKEA Foundation, becomes even more important.

After opening of Azraq Refugee Camp’s solar power plant, the syrian refugees can enjoy the evening outside their shelters. Photo: UNHCR

On May 17th, 2017, the UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner, Kelly Clements, and the CEO of the IKEA foundation, Per Heggenes, officially inaugurated Azraq Refugee Camp’s solar power plant. Photo: UNHCR

Several Swedish companies provide innovative solutions

In addition to the IKEA Foundation, several Swedish companies have distinguished themselves by providing innovative solutions adapted to the needs of refugees in humanitarian emergencies.  Sundaya, a solar energy provider, has worked with UNHCR to distribute solar-powered lamps and mobile phone charging kits to internally displaced persons in Iraq. Ecoloo, a company that has developed energy-free and water-free toilet units, was recently recognised by the United Nations as one of the top 10 global innovators and solution providers for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Solvatten has developed an award-winning innovation in which portable ultraviolet light technology is used to clean and heat water. Together with the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, Better Shelter has developed a housing unit for refugees that won several awards, including the Beazley Designs of the Year award in 2017.

All of the abovementioned innovations were designed with a clear gender perspective in mind and with a great level of attention paid to environmental concerns. Safe access to sanitation and clean water is often seen as one of the most important challenges to women’s safety during displacement. Providing camps with light reduces the risk of assault, where women are particularly vulnerable. Access to light enables children to read at night, preventing further disruption to their education. The emphasis on renewable energy creates a win-win situation for the environment and the end user.

Sweden attaches great importance to supporting innovative Swedish companies to work with the UN and implementing agencies as part of Sweden’s overall export strategy, adopted by the Swedish Government in 2015. Sweden is one of the most innovative countries in the world and is in many ways at the forefront of the transition to a green economy. This entails becoming completely fossil-free by 2040.

Encouraging closer cooperation with innovation hubs

From a Swedish perspective, it is important that the United Nations also makes its contribution towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and encouraging green growth. This includes the way the UN purchases products and services for humanitarian emergencies and development programmes. SDGs, such as responsible consumption and production, gender equality, and affordable and clean energy, should be integrated into the UN’s procurement practices. Sweden also encourages closer cooperation with innovation hubs, the private sector and the UN to come up with new solutions adapted to the needs of individuals and communities supported by UN programmes. Efforts by the UN in this regard are already under way.

Jordan is arguably of special interest in this regard as it has developed into a regional hub for the Syria crisis and the UN’s activities in Iraq, Palestine and Yemen. In 2015, 16 Swedish companies participated in a trade delegation to Jordan, led by Sweden’s Minister for Public Administration Ardalan Shekarabi, to explore the needs of the United Nations in light of the humanitarian consequences of the Syria crisis. The delegation included a visit to Azraq refugee camp and a meeting with refugees and staff at the camp to find out more about their everyday challenges.  The delegation generated an interest on the part of Swedish companies and the UN in cooperating more. In 2016, several Swedish health care companies met with UN agencies to look at specific health care needs and challenges related to Jordan’s development priorities and its humanitarian crisis.

The IKEA Foundation’s contribution to solar panels in Azraq can hopefully be the starting point for the increased engagement of the private sector on a global level towards sustainable solutions in protracted humanitarian crises.

Josefine Hellgren, Embassy of Sweden in Amman 


The solar panels in Azraq:

  • The 2-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) plant will enable UNHCR to provide affordable and sustainable electricity to 20 000 Syrian refugees living in almost 5 000 shelters at Azraq refugee camp, covering the energy needs of the two villages connected to the national grid.
  • Each family can now connect a fridge, a TV and a fan, have light inside their shelter and charge their phones.
  • The solar farm will result in immediate savings of USD 1.5 million per year and it will reduce CO2 emissions by 2 370 tons per year.
  • Once the solar plant is upgraded from 2 to 5 megawatts and operating at full capacity, it will increase these savings and reductions in CO2 emissions and cover all of Azraq’s energy needs.
  • The solar plant, which cost EUR 8.75 million, has been entirely funded by the IKEA Foundation through the Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign.
  • The solar plant will contribute to the Jordan national energy strategy to achieve a green economy by 2020.

Read more: Factsheet on solar panels in Azraq from UNHCR press release