High-level debates on the future of energy systems often fail to engage with Indigenous voices.64 In this section, the authors wish to highlight a handful of Saharawi initiatives that illuminate what a Saharawi just transition might look like. These include low-tech hydroponics for sustainable food production, homes made from re-used plastic, and plans for future renewable-powered towns in a free Western Sahara. Nevertheless, we must be aware that such ‘good practice’ cases from the camps are not in themselves a guarantee that the government of an independent Western Sahara would realize a truly just transition in the event of decolonization. Although self-determination is, as we have seen in the previous section, a fundamental component of a Saharawi just transition, it would not guarantee a just transition in and of itself. In this section, then, the authors therefore also wish to highlight questions that would need to be addressed in a future independent Western Sahara in order to ensure a transition away from extractivism towards a just, equitable and regenerative system.
Engineer Taleb Brahim has developed innovative low-tech hydroponics to allow refugee-citizens to grow their own fruits and vegetables, and fodder for their animals. Hydroponics is a type of horticulture that involves growing plants without soil. ‘Low-tech’ here refers to technologies that, according to Brahim, refugee-citizens have access to and can afford. This method is designed to be accessible to all, so that even the poorest families can reasonably have access to self-produced, healthy, nutritious food. The hydroponic units recycle water and use naturally-produced fertilizers. As Brahim points out: ‘if you insist that pesticides and artificial fertilizers are necessary for agriculture, then you will rely on multinationals’.65 Brahim explained that he is driven by an ethic of ‘sustainability, self-sufficiency and independence for Saharawis’.66 According to Brahim, as far as he knows he is the first person globally to have developed low-tech hydroponics in conditions that are widely considered to be ‘extreme’ in terms of climate and availability of resources. The World Food Programme is now trialling his model in seven other countries with refugee populations, and 1,200 Saharawis in the camps have received the training necessary to allow them to replicate his innovation.67
Engineer Tateh Lehbib has created a new construction method that leads to lower household temperatures and higher resistance to winds and floods (traditional houses are made using adobe, which crumbles in the rain). His method relies on cheap materials – recycled water bottles – and can be easily replicated by anyone. The curved dome shape of these buildings keeps interior temperatures lower than in traditional square homes. Especially vulnerable refugees, including the elderly and those with long-term health conditions, have been the first to benefit from Lehbib’s new form of housing.68
While Brahim and Lehbib have spearheaded innovations that make life in the camps more sustainable, comfortable and healthy, other refugee-citizens are looking to the future of the POLISARIO-controlled zone of Western Sahara. Architect and engineer Hartan Mohammed Salem Bechri has designed a future sustainable city, or, as he calls it, a ‘durable, permanent habitat’ for humans and their non-human companions (camels and goats), with the POLISARIO-controlled zone in mind. His design includes areas to house sedentary citizens, as well as zones with amenities for visiting nomads and non-human animals. The city would be run fully on renewable energy.69
Bechri, Lehbib and Brahim’s innovations speak to a just transition in several ways. A just transition requires an equitable redistribution of resources.70 Lehbib and Brahim’s innovations reveal a concern for affordability and self-sufficiency. The two engineers have developed ways to ensure the poorest families have access to shelter and healthy food, without reliance on multinationals for raw materials, with their innovations aiming to be economically sustainable (for the families themselves) and environmentally sustainable. Lehbib’s designs, although they are just plans at this stage, take into account more than just humans in his vision for a Saharawi future in an independent Western Sahara. Most frameworks for a just transition emphasize the importance of caring for ‘more-than-human nature’, as well as for human communities. In the Saharawi case, this is in line with nomadic traditions. Traditional ecologically-aware and environmentally-conscious Saharawi practices have been documented back to the eighteenth century at least,71 while the traditional centrality of, and care for, camels is also well-evidenced.72 SADR’s forthcoming indicative Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Climate Agreements further illustrates its government’s intention to contribute to wider, global conversations on addressing the climate crisis and to sustaining these traditional ecologically-aware practices.73
More immediately, SADR’s Energy Department has plans for rolling out renewable energy in the area of Western Sahara controlled by SADR. The roll-out would incentivize a return of refugees to Western Sahara. The Department has carried out a scoping study and is looking for funding to pilot some recommendations of the study, which calculates the solar and wind infrastructure that would be needed to power essential public infrastructure, such as hospitals, and takes stock of existing infrastructure, such as communal wells, currently powered by wind turbines, which are used by nomads. The study also looks at options for residential energy. Electrical engineer and co-author of the scoping study, Daddy Mohammed Ali, together with his team, has discussed the option of large-scale solar farms. However, they wonder if such a model would be ‘adaptable enough’ for nomadic lifestyles. The team has therefore scoped the possibility of providing every Saharawi family with its own portable, independent solar technology. Mohammed Ali explains: ‘We find that families in the liberated zone often travel, so it’s good if they have their independent panel, that they can transport, have their own independent network if you like’.74 Such concern for sustaining non-sedentary lifestyles would be a vital part of a Saharawi just transition, ensuring inclusionary spaces for nomadic practices.
The recent plans for a renewable future set out by the SADR government’s Energy Department depart drastically from older plans by the government’s Petroleum and Mines Authority (the PMA). Through licensing rounds that began in 2005, SADR entered into assurance agreements with four international companies over oil exploration rights in a future independent Western Sahara.75 The PMA claims to have consulted extensively with civil society ahead of launching its licensing round;76 however, research among Saharawi youth activists found both civil society groups that were supportive of such agreements (on the basis that they challenged Morocco’s efforts to exploit petroleum) and those that were critical of such plans on the basis that solar energy is far preferable for environmental reasons.77 This raises the question of popular sovereignty – integral to any just transition – and how energy-related decisions would be made in a free Western Sahara. Would oil be exploited despite the climate crisis and its disproportionate impact on communities living in hot climates like the Saharawis? Would existing wind and solar farms in occupied Western Sahara be nationalized? A just transition, as well as moving away from fossil fuels extraction, requires democratic, participative decision-making over, and equitable benefit from, energy resources.
On the other hand, there are reassuring aspects in the SADR government’s existing energy policy in the camps. For example, when limited opportunities for solar-powered electricity arrived in the camps in the late 1980s (largely via funding from Swiss and Spanish NGOs), the government prioritized three public institutions for electrification: hospitals and pharmacies, primary schools, and women’s education and training centres.78 Arguably, such prioritization reflects SADR’s professed dedication to gender equality.79 As the authors have argued in the previous section, the current energy model in occupied Western Sahara has disproportionately negative impacts on women and girls, due to the frequent power outages and the gendered oppression of those who oppose the extractivist energy model. A Saharawi just transition, as in other contexts, should therefore by a feminist one.80