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Solar comes to Shatila

Shatila street

Shatila's labyrinthine streets seldom enjoy the sunlight. Roofs, however, are ideal spots for solar panels. © Lydia James

Sunglasses are surplus to requirements when walking through the labyrinth of alleyways that make up much of Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. High buildings locked in an embrace conspire with low-hanging electricity cables and water pipes to shield the camp’s 22,000 inhabitants from the sun.

Natural light is blotted out from many apartments, with ground- and first-floor residents getting the worst deal. Open windows are perfect for borrowing sugar off a neighbour or listening to the latest gossip, but attempts to capture anything other than drifting smoke fumes are futile.

While windows may be humble decoration, roofs are Shatila’s secret weapon.

Emerging from the fourth floor of the camp’s Children and Youth Centre (CYC) is to be dazzled by rays of the late afternoon sun. Roofs are not only places to dry clothes and store water containers; they offer the potential to harness the sun and convert it into a much-needed power supply.

Located in the southern suburbs of the capital, Beirut, the square-kilometre strip of land is one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, founded by the International Red Cross when the creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into neighbouring countries.

Getting to grips with solar panels in Shatila.

Lydia James

Decades later and under half of the inhabitants are Palestinian. The population has swelled and Shatila has become a sanctuary of sorts to Romany groups, Sri Lankan and Filipino immigrants, poor Lebanese families and, since 2011, over 6,000 Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians.

Conditions in the camp are dire: the Lebanese government absolved itself of responsibility towards Shatila residents long ago and discriminatory policies affecting the country’s 450,000 Palestinian refugees mean that it is difficult for people to change their living situation. The authorities supply water and electricity to the camp on an ad-hoc basis but most services are delivered by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), and other NGOs.

Four hours on, four hours off

In central Beirut, the power cuts out for around three hours a day; most people have a backup energy source meaning that the impact is rarely felt. ‘Here, it’s four hours on, four hours off. We have only 12 hours [of electricity] a day,’ says Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Moujahed – the Palestinian director of the Children and Youth Centre. ‘But even this is not true because usually the power is cut for more than four hours at a time.’ The sunless apartments compound this problem. ‘The shortage is affecting people’s daily lives. When the electricity is off it means fridges stop working so families lose their food,’ explains Abu Moujahed. It is easy to become depressed with little natural or even artificial light and resorting to candles is dangerous with buildings at such close proximity.

The solution, for the few that can afford it, is to use a generator that costs $100 a month to run. Others illegally tap into the electricity grid. But there is another option – one that offers not only cheaper, greener energy but also autonomy over a resource rationed by the government for political rather than logistical reasons.

‘In the long run, the solar [energy] system is cheap, it can operate without much maintenance and the sun can be got from god for free’

This is where volunteers from Italian association Ingegneria Senza Frontiere (Engineering Without Frontiers) come in. Collaborating with Associazione per la Pace (Italian Association for Peace), members of a group called Yallah! first visited Shatila in 2012 and hosted several camp residents in Italy the following year as part of an exchange.

After working with CYC staff to identify the organization’s needs, eight volunteers began working on a solar energy pilot project in August 2014, replacing the costly generator with four solar panels. In February and April 2015 a further eight panels were installed. Now 12 panels – three kilowatts worth – power the four-storey building and its adjoining guesthouse when the mains electricity is down, although fridges and washing machines are currently too energy intensive.

This work is only half of the project. The engineers’ key objective when they visit the camp every 4-6 months is to support camp inhabitants to find their own solutions to the electricity shortages: training people to maintain the solar system is a large part of this, but it is proving a challenge.

‘Training is something that we try to do at the same time as installing the panels,’ explains engineer Giovanni Savino. ‘We invited a lot of people to the training in August 2014 and this time [in April]. But only one resident turned up – who was already working with the group. ‘It could be that people are working or aren’t interested in coming here to learn something for free. Maybe they don’t want to work with an NGO,’ speculates Savino. Environmental engineering student Costanza Martella offers another possible explanation. ‘People think this place is like a prison, perhaps they don’t want to paint the walls of their prison.’

Abu Moujahed is more positive. ‘Before [the installation] we thought that electricity was something that came from heaven, but when the engineers explained the process, people began to understand it. Maybe the repair of the solar panels needs some professional expertise but I have learnt how to assemble them easily: there is a map, instructions, it is clear how to do it.’

Spreading the word

He hopes the idea will spread to other organizations and families in the camp. ‘In August we called the organizations, committees and friends of Shatila to see what we did and to encourage them to do the same. Everybody found it a good idea but expensive.’ Funding for CYC’s solar project has so far come from a variety of sources, including Italy’s Roman Catholic church, UNESCO, fundraising events and personal donations. There are hopes that micro credit or small loans managed by NGOs in the camp could increase uptake. ‘In the long run, the solar [energy] system is cheap, it can operate without much maintenance and the sun can be got from god for free,’ adds Abu Moujahed.

There may not have been much interest in the training, but the neighbours are curious. From the vantage point of higher roofs or balconies, faces peek out from behind curtains or ask for their photos to be taken as the Italian engineers and CYC’s director make final adjustments to the system on their last day of work until August. A man sitting on the roof above comments loudly on the progress made – in the style of a backseat driver – with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other, before thanking the workers profusely for their efforts. But not everyone is as appreciative. One evening a resident threw rubbish onto the centre’s roof next to the solar panels and initially refused to clear it up. As Abu Moujahed says, ‘within one year it is not possible to change the world.’

The glitches are fitting: in an overcrowded refugee camp designed to be temporary, nothing is tried or achieved without encountering obstacles. Meanwhile, the once-forgotten sun is beginning to increase a community’s resilience, four solar panels at a time.


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