Home Breadcrumb spacer 

Fuel and Firewood Initiative

Cooking Fuel Saves Lives: A Holistic Approach to Cooking in Humanitarian Settings

Safe access to cooking fuel is critical in humanitarian settings. Without it, displaced people face risks to their health, safety and well-being. Every sector, including camp coordination and camp management, food and nutrition, health, livelihoods or health, has a role to play in this issue--and sectors need to work together. The Women's Refugee Commission has developed a set of fact sheets for every sector to outline the issues involved, the problems and solutions.

The collection, supply and use of firewood and alternative energies in humanitarian settings has been associated with a variety of harmful consequences, including but not limited to: rape and assault during firewood collection, environmental degradation and respiratory and other illnesses caused by the indoor burning of biomass materials.

These consequences span traditional humanitarian response sectors and rarely fit neatly into the existing mandates of operational nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) and UN agencies. As a result, household energy-related initiatives are often ad hoc and do not take into account the lessons learned in other sectors or regions.

We were in Kenya this summer conducting a joint assessment with the World Food Programme (WFP) about safe access to cooking fuel in refugee camps. We visited Kakuma and Dadaab camps to talk with refugee women about the kinds of cooking fuel they are using and how they obtain it. As part of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee for Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy (SAFE) in Humanitarian Settings, our goal is to ensure that refugees have safe access to cooking fuels that do not pose health or safety risks.
Firewood rations are distributed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Kakuma camp every 60 days but for the average household, this ration only lasts 5-10 days. Refugee women face hard choices once their firewood rations run out. They've been telling us that they often resort to trading their food rations for cooking fuel in order to cook food for their families.
You can see photos from our trip here.

Young woman with stove in Ethiopia. Photo: Donna Morris


  • Download our fact sheet on the Women's Refugee Commission's Fuel and Firewood Initiative.

The Women's Refugee Commission has long recognized the need to fundamentally change the way the humanitarian community tackles the issue. With its partners, InterAction, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP), the Women's Refugee Commission has led an 18-month inter-agency effort to build an effective and holistic response to fuel needs in diverse settings around the world.

What are the global guidance documents?

Uganda Boy keeping warm
Photo: Erin Patrick/Women's Refugee Commission

The first-ever global guidance documents focus on the need to ensure safe access to appropriate cooking fuel in humanitarian settings from the start of every emergency. Two critical tools will allow agencies to address these urgent needs. Created by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and Alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings (IASC Task Force SAFE) and endorsed in Rome on November 18, 2008 by the IASC Working Group, they are:

  • Matrix on agency roles and responsibilities for developing a coordinated fuel strategy. The matrix defines the key fuel-related activities that must occur in order to achieve an effective fuel response in new and ongoing humanitarian crises. (PDF)
  • Decision Tree Diagrams on factors affecting the choice of fuel strategy—recognizing, for example, the difference in staple foods and cooking habits across different settings. (PDF)

Read our press release on the international endorsement of this global guidance in December 2008: "New Guidance on Safe Cooking Fuel for Households in Humanitarian Settings Secures International Endorsement."

Women's Refugee Commission leads international efforts to address safe cooking fuel for refugees

Uganda girl cooking
Photo: Erin Patrick/Women's Refugee Commission

We are pushing for solutions that reduce displaced women's and girls' vulnerability to gender violence as they collect firewood. The development of alternative sources of cooking fuel can help lessen the potential for attack.

Read our statement on the newly formed Global Alliance on Clean Cookstoves.

Beyond Firewood Conference

Humanitarians gathered in New Delhi in December 2008 for the first-ever international conference dedicated to firewood, alternative cooking fuels and technologies in humanitarian settings. Held at the Hyatt Regency, it brought together over 100 engineers, scientists, local and international NGOs, UN agencies and academics—all searching for ways to help reduce the risk of violence faced by millions of women and girls during firewood collection and lessen the harmful effects of indoor air pollution and environmental degradation. For more information, go to www.fuelnetwork.org/conference.

International Coordination

The Women's Refugee Commission established an Inter-Agency Task Force (IASC) – the highest UN coordination body – to address fuel strategies in humanitarian settings. With 25 members representing 17 key UN humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and the major NGO consortia, the IASC Task Force SAFE developed guidance on how to address all fuel-related issues in humanitarian settings.

We also established the International Network on Household Energy in Humanitarian Settings, bringing together local and international organizations, donors and technology experts to share information and best practices about implementing fuel projects in the field.

The Women's Refugee Commission is currently working with the World Food Programme (WFP) on its efforts to ensure safe access to cooking fuel for women in Sudan and Uganda. Included among the numerous facets of the joint effort is an initiative to provide tens of thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to women in these areas; under the pilot project launched in December 2009, the WFP will distribute specially designed mud stoves to 100,000 women in Sudan and 35,000 women in Uganda. In addition to targeting women's immediate safe access needs as outlined above, our collaborative effort with WFP works to promote and support alternative livelihoods options so that women are not forced to rely on the sale of collected firewood or charcoal production as a primary or source of income.


The Women's Refugee Commission has undertaken a series of site visits interviewing hundreds of refugee and internally displaced women in Darfur, Chad, Nepal, Uganda, Thailand, Ethiopia and Haiti to determine their needs and preferences with regard to cooking fuel. Their opinions directly informed the work of the Inter-Agency Task Force.

In the report, Beyond Firewood: Fuel Alternatives and Protection Strategies for Displaced Women and Girlswe outline alternative fuel options, firewood collection techniques and other protection strategies that should be used in displaced and refugee situations.

To be effective, however, all strategies aimed at reducing the threat to women and girls should be accompanied by the development of income-generation activities. Women and girls must be able to earn a living in ways other than collecting or selling firewood. Read more about the Women's Refugee Commission's work on providing economic opportunities for refugees.

Public Campaign: Get Beyond Firewood

The Women's Refugee Commission launched Get Beyond Firewood in November 2008. It was a public campaign to bring attention to the issue of cooking fuel, which has long been ignored by the humanitarian community, despite the fact that the food distributed by relief agencies needs to be cooked before it can be eaten.

Read an op-ed by actress Liv Ullmann in The Boston Globe on getting beyond firewood: "Making Life Safer for Refugee Women".

We Have No Choice: Safe Access to Firewood in DRC

The Women's Refugee Commission and the World Food Programme conducted an assessment in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on access to cooking fuel. This report covers their findings and recommendations.

Download this Report

Matrix on Agency Roles and Responsibilities for Ensuring a Coordinated, Multi-Sectoral Fuel Strategy

The collection, supply and/or use of firewood and alternative energy – and consequences thereof, such as rape, murder, environmental degradation and indoor air pollution leading to respiratory infections – is a multi-sectoral issue which cannot be effectively addressed by a singularly-mandated agency or cluster acting alone.

Download this Report

Cooking Fuel and the Humanitarian Response in the Horn of Africa

Food is the most urgent need in Kenya, Somalia and other neighboring countries today, and the World Food Programme (WFP) and its implementing partners are urgently distributing food rations to as many refugees and inter- nally displaced persons inside Somalia as possible. That food, however—cereals, pulses, vegetable oil and "corn-soya blend"—must be cooked in order to be eaten, and cooking fuel is not provided to the majority of refugees. Cooking fuel is therefore just as critical as the food itself, particularly over the long term.

Download this Report

Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Kenya: An Appraisal Report

In 2007 WFP agreed to co-chair the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings (SAFE) together with UNHCR and the Women's Refugee Commission (which worked under the authority of InterAction).

Following the launch of the SAFE guidance material in April 2009, WFP decided to undertake a series of feasibility studies to better understand how beneficiaries, particularly displaced populations, are coping with fuel scarcity and the related consequences, to take stock of existing responses by both WFP and partners, and to propose a comprehensive approach, based on the SAFE guidance, that addresses human and environmental protection, livelihoods, food and nutrition. To date, missions have been conducted in North Darfur (Sudan), Uganda, Haiti and Sri Lanka and Kenya, while another mission will take place in Ethiopia in the fall of 2010.

Download this Report