Meet the agents of change: Joe Y Battikh

Joe Battikh is Head of the Energy & Water Knowledge Hub for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He explains why capacity building and collaboration are key to addressing energy and water supply challenges in the humanitarian space

In the disaster and humanitarian response space, what is the key to driving positive change in the sustainable supply of water and energy? 

This requires a multi-faceted approach that involves various stakeholders, technologies, and policies. Key strategies that can help achieve this goal include collaboration between stakeholders, including humanitarian organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), governments, private sector, national societies and academia, with the capacity to engage, work with and enrich local service providers.

This helps ensure that all stakeholder needs are considered and developed solutions are sustainable and effective. For example, the establishment of the Energy & Water Knowledge Hub in the UAE is the fruit of collaboration between the ICRC, Grundfos and Schneider Electric from the private sector, and the Sharjah Research, Technology & Innovation Park which is a joint government and academia-managed initiative.

Another strategy is investment in infrastructure with whole systems in mind. This may involve the construction of water treatment plants, distribution networks, and renewable energy facilities. At the same time, hardware cannot operate without people and consumables, such as spare parts, chemical products, fuel, etc. Many humanitarian actors have become much better at analysing and responding to needs at the scale of entire systems, and across different interconnected systems.

Education and capacity building is also a strategic opportunity. In the last decade in particular, many humanitarian actors have recognised the importance of developing additional specific competencies, such as urban system specialists or energy specialists. These and other vital roles are critical in helping people understand the importance of sustainable water and energy supplies, and to encourage them to adopt sustainable behaviours.

For example, the Energy & Water Knowledge Hub hosts in-person classes and provides technical laboratories to train ICRC staff. One of our goals is to ensure that staff apply the skills acquired, the impact then rippling out to other sustainable water and energy projects. 

What are the biggest disruptors to energy and water supply in the humanitarian space and how have they positively impacted the lives of those in need, whether displaced persons in a war zone, in refugee camps, or part of your own response team? 

Renewable energy sources, such as solar power, have become increasingly accessible and affordable in recent years. This has allowed humanitarian organisations to implement sustainable energy solutions in remote and resource-poor areas, providing reliable and affordable energy access to those in need.

In addition, the combination of renewable energy to power water pumps to produce fresh water can address imminent issues such as sanitation and food security. In Yemen, for example, where conflict has led to a severe shortage of clean water with many people relying on unsafe sources of water, the ICRC has been using solar-powered water pumps to provide clean water to those affected.

These pumps can operate in remote and off-grid areas where there is no access to electricity and thus provide access to a reliable and sustainable source of clean water.

What are the main challenges to taking renewable energies mainstream across the humanitarian aid landscape?

There are several challenges to consider, such as limited funding. Humanitarian aid organisations often operate on limited budgets, which can make it difficult to invest in renewable energy technologies that may have higher upfront costs than traditional alternatives. Increased funding is specifically required for countries experiencing conflict and violent situations. If we consider the impact of climate change on these communities, the importance of financing becomes even more urgent.

Limited technical expertise is another challenge as the deployment and maintenance of renewable energy systems often requires specialised technical expertise; and this may not be readily available in the context of humanitarian aid operations.

This is one of the purposes of the Energy & Water Knowledge Hub, where capacity building is critical in supporting the deployment and maintenance of renewable solutions. As well as ICRC’s own engineers, technical training and capacity-building programmes are highly beneficial for the regional water and energy ministry staff.

Institutional weakness and poor governance is also an issue. To introduce renewable energy at the level needed to sustain essential services, large infrastructure installations, such as a pumping station, may be required, and this requires changes to national strategy. During conflict situations, however, these changes are difficult to implement due to lack of resources and attention diversion. This can also be related to  brain drain, lack of trust in facing these types of changes, and other challenges.

The energy transition to renewables requires monetary investment, which may not be accessible for a country in conflict and, from an investment perspective, private sector and financial institutions are naturally averse to risk. This ultimately requires a mechanism to support their involvement.

Can the construction and maintenance of water supply in water-stressed countries reach net zero and if so, how?

North African and West Asian countries are the most water stressed in the world. The effect of climate change creates harsh environments not conducive to population dependence on water for agriculture.

Achieving net-zero for water supply and maintenance in water-stressed countries requires a combination of strategies and technologies that promote water conservation, reuse, and efficiency, as well as the use of renewable energy sources and integrated water resources management.

Implementing these approaches will require a collaborative effort between governments, businesses and communities to overcome financial, technical, and social barriers. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that in conflict-affected countries the primary objective is service continuation, maintenance of minimum service, and drinking quality standards. This could be addressed using renewable energy sources that simplify the process of implementation and rehabilitation, and make economic sense at the same time.

How is the ICRC pioneering the adoption of alternative energy solutions in the humanitarian aid sector?

The ICRC has been pioneering the adoption of alternative energy solutions such as solar, wind, and hydro power. These solutions are being incorporated into operations to power hospitals, clinics, water pumping stations, and other essential facilities.

One example of ICRC's work is its partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) to foster collaboration between the humanitarian and scientific sectors, as well as specialists in other fields. The objective is to develop technologies to tackle the humanitarian challenges facing the world today.

ICRC has also been promoting the use of solar-powered water pumps in communities that lack access to clean water. In South Sudan, for example, it renovated the Akuach water yard, which provides water to 15,000 people, as well as supporting agricultural activity, by installing solar-powered pumps.

Overall, the ICRC's adoption of alternative energy solutions in its humanitarian aid sector is a positive step towards a more sustainable and resilient future.