This year, World Refugee Day falls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – the latest in a string life-altering shocks for over 167 million people who were already in need of humanitarian assistance in 2020. As the international community struggles to respond to a virus that is overwhelming the healthcare systems of developed nations, the outlook is discouraging for vulnerable populations such as refugees, migrants, and internally displaced people (IDPs). Crowded conditions, severely limited healthcare, lack of access to information, and depleted humanitarian budgets all raise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among these populations and reduce the likelihood of full recovery for those infected.

Among these risks is a lack of access to clean cooking solutions, a consistently under-resourced component in humanitarian response for at least two decades. Emerging research suggests that patients exposed to air pollution have a higher risk of dying from respiratory viruses like COVID-19. This is unsettling, when the best data currently available suggests that at least 80% of displaced people living in camps rely on solid biomass fuels such as firewood and charcoal to cook their meals. In poorly ventilated dwellings, pollution from cooking smoke can be 100 times higher than levels deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization. Exposure is particularly high among women and children, who spend the most time near cooking fires.

Compounded with underlying health conditions such as malnutrition, psychosocial stress, and infectious diseases that already render them more vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19, the simple everyday act of cooking may further reduce the chances of recovery from the virus among displaced people. Moreover, most cooking fuel in humanitarian settings is collected or purchased from the surrounding community. If aid agencies do not find ways to bring fuel to households, there is an increased risk of displaced people transmitting or contracting COVID-19 in order to procure fuel that they need to eat.

While it is too late to make clean cooking solutions widely available to all displaced people in time for this pandemic, the humanitarian community can use this opportunity to “build back better” on cooking and energy access. The Clean Cooking Alliance co-launched the Global Plan of Action for Sustainable Energy Solutions in Situations of Displacement (GPA) with several partners in 2018, and UNHCR built on this momentum by launching its Clean Energy Challenge at the first Global Refugee Forum this past December. These and other initiatives are collaborating to bring funding and expertise to the effort of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 for all crisis-affected people by 2030, including modern cooking fuel and technologies.

The road will be long. Meeting WHO’s indoor air pollution guidelines for household fuel combustion, the standard for cooking solutions that do not negatively impact respiratory health, will require replacing all existing cooking devices in every home with cooking solutions that are powered by alcohol fuels, gas, electricity, or solar energy. The supply chains and funding to facilitate such a shift are generally not yet available in humanitarian settings, but innovative partnerships are beginning to emerge. In Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, home to some 860,000 Rohingya refugees, various agencies including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) have collaborated with the Government of Bangladesh and two private companies to distribute liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and stoves to the refugee and host communities.

“Transmission of COVID-19 can be limited if refugees or host communities do not need to resort to firewood collection,” says Paul McCallion, UNHCR Senior Energy Officer, based in Bangladesh. In Ethiopia, Gaia Clean Energy is working with UNHCR to bring ethanol, another clean fuel, to refugees in Jijiga and Assosa – although supply is currently on hold due to pricing disputes with the National Sugar Corporation. For the long term, UNHCR is also working with the Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) research project to explore renewably powered electric cooking options.

Beyond the improvement of respiratory health, there is also a strong environmental argument to be made for the scale up of clean cooking solutions in humanitarian settings. By reducing or eliminating the environmental degradation that results from widespread firewood collection, clean cooking measures can mitigate the risk of future population-displacing disasters such as landslides, floods, and violent conflicts over scarce resources. The Cox’s Bazaar project was implemented for exactly this reason, and McCallion reports that the LPG rollout has saved 7,900 hectares of forest to date. Humanitarian agencies and partners have planted an additional 800 hectares of mixed vegetation since 2018, visibly transforming the landscape (see photos below).

As global climate change increases people’s vulnerability to crisis and infectious diseases become more prevalent, it has never been more critical that the global humanitarian system invests in long term resilience and recovery measures that will help crisis-affected people cope with additional shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. This World Refugee Day, as the UN reminds us that every action counts, the Clean Cooking Alliance and its partners urge humanitarian practitioners and donors to adopt clean cooking and improved energy access among these measures. With global displacement numbers higher than ever before, they will be vital to promoting resilience and saving lives in the wake of future disasters.