Backdraft #7: Janani Vivekananda on What Renewable Energy Projects Can Learn From Oil and Future-Proofing Humanitarian Responses
As more and more development and humanitarian programs contend with climate-related problems, there are important lessons learned from past experience that should not be forgotten, says Janani Vivekananda, formerly of International Alert and now with adelphi, in this week’s episode of “Backdraft.”
In her work with International Alert, Vivekananda found there was often a misconception that all renewable energy projects are an “unalloyed good.” But renewable energy efforts still require access to resources, like land and water, which can be highly contested (listen to Stacy VanDeveer in Backdraft #2 for more on this). Traditional extractive industries like oil and gas have grappled with conflict risks in the communities they work for decades, to greater and lesser degrees of success, but little of that experience has transferred over to the renewable sector, she says.
Vivekananda says that development actors looking to encourage renewable energy projects should strive to understand local power dynamics as much as possible – who controls assets, and is it through formal or informal agreements, treaties, etc. “Then understand how your intervention is going to affect and change this and who the winners and losers are going to be.”
There can be significant financial and social costs when conflict-sensitivity is not built into program design. Vivekananda gives the example of a wind farm in northwest Kenya proposed by a large international bank. The consultation process focused on elites at the district level, but did not include local non-elites who would be directly affected by the project. Consequently, the project broke down as the project organizers realized too late that the land required was already highly contested.
“These local contextual conflict dynamics were not fed into program design,” says Vivekananda, “and it was a very expensive way to learn about the need to ensure that an intervention was conflict-sensitive.”
Humanitarian interventions are another response that by their very nature – immediate, short-term, and urgent – often do not plan for longer-term impacts. As groups rush to fill the burgeoning global need, “we’re seeing then that humanitarian interventions are climate blind and conflict blind,” says Vivekananda. Refugee camps, like Zaatari in Jordan which houses nearly 80,000 refugees, are often built without sustainable water or energy use plans. Groundwater extraction in Zaatari has inflated the local water market making it difficult for surrounding communities to afford water, thereby increasing tensions, says Vivekananda.
To address gaps in planning, Vivekananda says a shift in mindset is needed not only at the practitioner level, but at the political level. By incorporating a sustainable development and conflict-sensitive lens at the outset, interventions can not only help avoid conflict but actively increase cohesion and trust.
In Kibera, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, Vivekananda and her colleagues saw firsthand the peace dividends that can come from a forward-looking, participatory planning approach. They found that the projects most likely to increase community resilience – to both conflict and climate risks like flooding – were the ones that “through their process involve people in decisions and planning and are participatory by nature and therefore build trust between the communities affected and the government.”
Interventions with a single sector approach – e.g., moving people from informal shacks to more sturdy structures – sometimes inadvertently undermined social networks and ultimately had a negative impact on community resilience. “That social cohesion is critical and if you’re intervening in a way that dislocates that, undermines that, it’s unlikely to take hold,” says Vivekananda.
The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.
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