Solar power comes to Shatila

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Solar power comes to Shatila

Lydia James visits the Lebanese refugee camp and finds a lighter, brighter future.


The narrow streets in Shatila never really have sunlight. But the roofs are perfect for solar panels. © Lydia James

You don’t need sunglasses when you walk through the tiny streets in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. The high buildings and low electricity cables and water pipes stop the camp’s 22,000 people from seeing the sun.

There is no natural light in many apartments. The ground floor and first floor apartments are the worst. But the roofs in Shatila are the best.

On the fourth floor of the camp’s Children and Youth Centre (CYC) there is a lot of late afternoon sun. Roofs are places to dry clothes and keep water and to make energy from the sun.

Shatila is in the southern suburbs of the capital, Beirut. It is a square kilometre and one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The International Red Cross started the camp in 1948 when Israel started. Then hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left for nearby countries.


Solar panels in Shatila. Lydia James

Many years later under half of the inhabitants are Palestinian. The population is bigger and Shatila is now a kind of safe place for Romany groups, Sri Lankan and Filipino immigrants, poor Lebanese families and, since 2011, over 6,000 Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians.

The camp is a terrible place. The Lebanese government does not look after the people in Shatila. The unequal policies for the country’s 450,000 Palestinian refugees mean that it is difficult for people to change their living situation. The government sometimes gives water and electricity to the camp but most comes from the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), and other NGOs.

Four hours on, four hours off

In central Beirut, there is no electricity for about three hours a day. Most people have their own backup electricity and they do not notice. Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Moujahed, is the Palestinian director of the Children and Youth Centre. He says, ‘Here, it’s four hours on, four hours off. We have only 12 hours of electricity a day. But even this is not true because usually the power is cut for more than four hours.’ And there is no sun in the apartments. Abu Moujahed says, ‘This is a real problem for people. When the electricity is off, fridges stop working so families lose their food.’

It is easy to become depressed with very little natural or even electric light. And candles are dangerous because the buildings are very close together.

The answer for the few people who have the money is to use a generator. It costs $100 a month. Other people use the electricity grid illegally. But there is another answer which is cheaper and greener and gives people their own power. It is solar power.

Volunteers from the Italian Ingegneria Senza Frontiere (Engineering Without Frontiers) helped with this. They worked with Associazione per la Pace (Italian Association for Peace). A group called Yallah! first visited Shatila in 2012 and invited a lot of people from the camp to Italy the following year as an exchange.

After working with CYC, eight volunteers began working on solar energy in August 2014 and replaced the expensive generator with four solar panels. In February and April 2015 they put in eight more solar panels. Now there are 12 panels with three kilowatts of power for the four-storey building and its guesthouse when the mains electricity is off. But the fridges and washing machines use too much energy.

The engineers visit the camp every 4-6 months to help the people to find their own answers to the electricity problem. They train people to look after the solar panels but it is not easy.

Giovanni Savino is one of the engineers. He says, ‘Training is something that we try to do at the same time as installing the panels. We invited a lot of people to the training in August 2014 and this time [in April]. But only one person came. And he was already working with the group. It is possible 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.’

Costanza Martella is an engineering student. He has another idea, ‘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 we thought that electricity was something that came from heaven, but when the engineers explained the process, people began to understand it. I have learnt how to assemble the solar panels easily. There is a map, instructions, it is clear how to do it.’

Telling other people

He hopes other people in the camp will use the idea. People like the idea but they think it is expensive. Money for CYC’s solar project has come from a number of places, including Italy’s Roman Catholic church, UNESCO, fundraising events, and individuals. They are hoping for micro credit or small loans from NGOs in the camp. ‘In the long run, solar energy is cheap, it is easy to look after and the sun is free,’ says Abu Moujahed.

Perhaps people are not very interested in the training, but the neighbours want to find out more. From the roofs and balconies, people look out and ask for their photos to be taken as the Italian engineers and CYC’s director work on the solar panels on their last day of work. A man is sitting on the roof and shouts about their progress with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. But then he thanks the workers for all their hard work. But not everyone is happy. One evening someone threw rubbish onto the centre’s roof next to the solar panels and would not clear it up. As Abu Moujahed says, ‘In one year it is not possible to change the world.’

There are always problems and there is always hard work in a very crowded refugee camp. But the sun is beginning to make the people stronger with every new solar panel.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).