In the aftermath of the Rwandan war of 1994, UNHCR and the IFRC (International Federation of the Red Cross), together with other agencies and NGOs, had to ensure a fuel supply and minimize the environmental damage done to Burundi by the sudden influx of 250,000 refugees housed in camps along the border with Rwanda.

The task was considerable: perhaps 400 tonnes of fuelwood per day were being used in the camps, all taken from the immediate surroundings. The concentrations of refugees (the two largest camps represented the second and third largest 'cities' in the country) resulted in considerable, if localised and hopefully temporary, woodfuel shortage. Refugees had to walk ever-further distances to find fuel, and their extensive foraging for wood was a potential source of tension between them and the local population, particularly the Burundese army.

Although wood is the main fuel in the camps and is much more energy efficient than traditionally produced charcoal, the influx of available refugee labour in the area led to local charcoal-burners vastly increasing their production of charcoal and felling of trees. IFRC was initially able to supply and distribute a minimum ration of one stere (one stacked m3, including spaces) of fuelwood per 50 persons per month. This was later increased by 50%.


At the outset, several constraints appeared affecting energy conservation work in the camps, as opposed to stable urban or rural areas.

  1. Many Rwandans were not accustomed to serious fuelwood shortages, and did not appreciate the potential fuel savings.
  2. Co-ordination between many agencies involved in Burundi was generally good; however, the project showed that the fuel issue needs to be taken into account by all the agencies involved. Some NGOs, in their rush to be seen as effective, hastily organised the building of mud stoves using unsuitable materials and without first examining how to measure their efficiency. The almost military-style nature of some of the emergency-oriented agencies at times did not sit comfortably alongside what was essentially a long-term development programme in an emergency situation.
  3. A refugee camp can allow an agency to reach far more people and more quickly than would be possible in a more stable situation.

Project outline

The short term element of the project had two main components: a hardware component of stoves and equipment, and software - the education component.

Camp planning was an integral part of the entire operation in facilitation of access, distribution of supplies, and the social cohesion of the camps. Camps were divided into quartiers of 40 families, each subdivided into four cellules. Each cellule for ten families was constructed around a sheltered, communal cooking area - a space protected from the elements where families can prepare food, cook and meet. They were also constructed with a wood-drying space under the roof, making use of the heat from the cooking below.

Building materials for a shelter were provided after each family had constructed a simple mud stove. Mud stoves were chosen, rather than sheet metal stoves or stoves with ceramic liner, because of their low cost, the impossibility of their being removed for sale, and the opportunities for refugees to acquire the production skills to take back with them when they return to Rwanda. Training in stove construction was provided by a team visiting each cellule. Many refugees already had experience of building mud stoves and soon learned to make the new designs. GTZ had been active with a stove dissemination programme in prewar Rwanda. New designs were continually being introduced by the refugees themselves.

Thin aluminium cooking pots, often without lids, were provided but were inappropriate for the slow-cooking foods issued. They were often sold by refugees, who used the money to purchase traditional, more appropriate and cheaper earthenware pots. Facilities were introduced into some camps for their manufacture by the batuwa, an ethnic group for whom pottery was a traditional role.

Under the training programme posters were placed on a noticeboard at each cellule kitchen. Each month, a different theme was promoted, emphasizing the need to chop and dry wood properly, to repair cracks in stoves, to extinguish fires after use, use lids, presoak beans and the saving of fuel by simmering food on a low heat rather than fast burning.

Fuel consumption

Attempts to estimate total fuel consumption change by counting the hourly numbers of refugees entering the camp with a headload of wood, or by checking the price of various woods in camp markets, etc. were too easily influenced by other factors, such as the weather, the seasonal price of labour. the moisture content of previously distributed wood' etc to be of practical use.

Direct observations of techniques employed in camps, combined with estimates of each technique's fuel-saving potential, are perhaps the most reliable data possible. The literature on stoves is peppered with such language as 'the stove has the potential to save x of fuel'. People now realise that there is a world of difference between the laboratory test results and actual field use. However, we can easily observe and measure an increase in the frequency of the use of lids in a camp. In a laboratory this will save perhaps 20% of fuel with a slow-cooking food, but it will save none at all unless the cook fully understands that putting a lid on a pot enables her to remove a piece of wood from the fire. We can estimate how many refugees were trained to pay more attention to wood-drying, but how many do so is unknown.

Hence only a 'guesstimate' of overall fuel saving is possible from the project's observations. During the first three months of operation 100% of families had constructed adequate mud stoves, the use of lids increased by 15% (from camp averages of 76% to 87%). 14% fewer heavily boiling pots were observed at the end of the month during which the need to simmer food had been emphasised.

Perhaps the most encouraging indicator of success was found in the markets, adjoining the camps. The benefits of improved stoves had been so thoroughly adopted by refugees that it was possible to distinguish those stands selling tea and hot snacks which were run by refugees and those which were run by Burundese - the refugees had all constructed stoves in the market place, despite the fact that this was only enforced (as a condition for receiving the wood ration), in the camps themselves.

UNHCR has recently enshrined energy and environmental concerns in its aims, but they still receive scant attention from many of the other agencies traditionally involved in relief. It is important that all agencies include energy and environmental concerns in their operations. Those supplying food for cooking should take account of its energy requirements. Fuel-efficient stoves and cooking pots should be either provided or built, and the most appropriate fuel available must be provided. These simple measures will not prevent all environmental harm, but can go a long was to minimizing it.

Last edited by Miriam Hansen .
Page last modified on Monday October 4, 2010 12:12:20 GMT.
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