The future of humanitarian water provision is solar

Brian McSorely Humanitarian, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

For World Water Week, Oxfam Engineering Adviser Brian McSorley reflects on the achievements of the Global Solar Water Initiative and the potential of solar water pumps to transform lives and ways of working.

Solar power offers so many possibilities for development and humanitarian aid, from lighting, to internet connectivity and water provision. If you are involved in helping communities access clean water, almost anywhere where Oxfam is working, the following question is a no brainer:

Where solar radiation is a freely available natural resource in abundant supply, why rely on diesel fuel -which is expensive, difficult to source in remote areas, to power a generator, which is a complex piece of mechanics, that frequently breaks down with skilled expertise and spare parts hard to find?

Oxfam in Dadaab

Less than six years ago in 2012, Oxfam installed the first solar water pumping system in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. At the time Dadaab was already 20 years old and recognised as the largest refugee camp in the world with a population of nearly half a million people. The initiative was a natural progression of Oxfam’s work in arid and semi-arid regions in East Africa, where for over a decade we had been promoting solar water pumping as a more cost effective and sustainable solution to meeting the water needs of drought affected rural communities. Building on the success of this we started expanding the work to camps in neighbouring countries, but were rebuffed by one key major donor who didn’t believe that renewable energy was appropriate or cost effective for refugee camps.

The year on year drop in the price of solar “photovoltaic” panels, combined with major improvements to solar pumping components is a game changer in addressing the challenges of providing affordable and reliable water service provision. However the speed of change was such that donors, engineers and key decision makers in Government where not aware, and we had not helped by failing to gather and document a clear evidence base on the impact of our work.

The Global Solar Water Initiative

This was the basis of the formation of the Global Solar Water Initiative (GSWI) formed by Oxfam, IOM and NRC in 2016. Through training, undertaking technical field assessments, managing a technical helpline, documenting and disseminating best practice, the GSWI has improved awareness, developed and strengthened technical skills and built an evidence based to lobby Governments and donors to invest more in renewable solar energy and enable humanitarian responders to increase the number of solar pumping systems being used within humanitarian operations globally.

By analysing 140 different water schemes, we have found that switching to solar will pay for itself within four years, and in some circumstances, solar is cheaper than a diesel generator from day one.
Since then, the two person full time team that constitutes the GSWI, has visited 55 camps and communities, conducted training workshops in eight countries and addressed technical queries from 80 organizations, across five continents. By analysing 140 different water schemes, we have found that switching to solar will pay for itself within four years, and in some circumstances, solar is cheaper than a diesel generator from day one. Over the life time of these systems solar will be 40-90% cheaper.

Scaling up the solar solution

Things are changing, but not fast enough. Dadaab is no longer the largest camp in the world, many refugees have returned home and one camp has closed, but it was arguably the first of its kind in terms of seeking more cost effective and sustainable water supply services.

However, in many other countries knowledge about solar pumps and the benefits of solar power is still low. This helps to explain why there has been such a demand for the services of the GSWI and feedback from country technical visits and trainings has been so positive. As a result, by popular demand, additional funding has been secured for a second phase of the project which will enable the initiative to expand into new countries in 2018 and 2019. This is only accelerating the inevitable – solar renewable energy is the future – but the sooner it is scaled up, the more people can be reached and the better quality of service people affected by humanitarian crises will receive.


Alastair Stewart