Energy poverty deprives 1 billion of adequate healthcare, says report
Neglect of energy undermines healthcare and education, leaving
patients, teachers and children in the dark
by Claire Provost
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 March 2013
MDG : Energy poverty : students reading on parking lot lights at
G'bessi Airport in Conakry, Guinea
Young Guineans, without access to electricity, study under carpark
lights at G'bessi airport in Conakry, Guinea. Photograph: Rebecca
Energy poverty has left more than 1 billion people in developing
countries without access to adequate healthcare, with staff forced to
treat emergency patients in the dark, and health centres lacking the
power they need to store vaccines or sterilise medical supplies,
according to a report.
In India, nearly half of all health facilities ï¿½ serving an estimated
580 million people ï¿½ lack electricity, according to this year's Poor
People's Energy Outlook (pdf), published on Wednesday by the NGO
Practical Action. A further 255 million people are served by health
centres without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, it says, where over
30% of facilities lack power.
"For critical and urgent health services such as emergency treatments
and childbirth, staff have no option but to cope as well as possible
in low lighting or in the dark, increasing the risk for all patients,
including mothers and babies," the report says.
Even where health centres have access to power, frequent power
shortages significantly hamper the ability to provide quality care, it
In Kenya, for example, only 25% of facilities have a reliable energy
supply, and blackouts happen at least six times a month, for an
average of 4.5 hours at a time. This "directly affects services such
as childbirth and emergency treatment, and limits night-time services.
It can also lead to wasted vaccines, blood and medicines that require
constant storage temperatures. Backup generators can be extremely
expensive," the report says.
Energy has shot up the international agenda, buoyed by the Sustainable
Energy for All initiative led by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon,
which aims to achieve universal access to energy by 2030 along with
efficiency gains and increased use of renewable energy. Wednesday's
report, however, warns that too little attention has been paid to the
needs of critical community services, putting progress on development
goals, particularly on health and education, at risk.
"Governments, donors and utilities focus mostly on domestic use and
access for enterprise," the report says. "Yet some of the most
important aspects of people's daily wellbeing are dependent on the
reliable delivery of modern energy not to their homes or places of
work, but to schools, clinics, institutions and community
In Bangladesh, the government has failed to prioritise or even measure
energy needed and used by critical community services, Maliha
Shahjahan, energy specialist for Practical Action, said. "Government
spending in energy sector is not considering the needs of the energy
poor people of Bangladesh ï¿½ [and] the government is mostly concern
about the urban users, both domestic and private sectors," she said.
Practical Action's advocacy lead on energy issues, Helen Morton, said:
"The historic neglect of energy in community services undermines the
ability to deliver education, healthcare and ultimately development.
[This report] makes the case for the energy services that poor people
want, need and have a right to ï¿½ providing communities with the power
to challenge their poverty."
In addition to surveying the energy needs of health facilities, the
report also estimates that half of primary school students in
developing countries ï¿½ more than 291 million children ï¿½ go to schools
without access to electricity.
For many, this could mean struggling with cold, damp and poorly
ventilated rooms, which can exacerbate health problems, it says. In
Bangladesh, Practical Action researchers found teachers forced to keep
classroom windows open during the cold season in order to let in
natural light. In Bolivia, they heard how students at one school had
to cut their lessons short to collect firewood needed to cook their
midday meals on inefficient wood stoves.
According to estimates, sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rate of
primary school access to electricity, at 35%, compared with 48% in
south Asia and 93% in Latin America. In some sub-Saharan African
countries, such as Burundi, only 2% of primary schools have
electricity. As with health centres, schools in rural areas are
disproportionately affected by energy poverty, notes the report.
Drew Corbyn, energy consultant at Practical Action, said many
community facilities may be using solar energy, or other small-scale
energy technologies, although data on their use and impact is
extremely sparse. "Some of these intermediate technologies can play a
very big role, and really transform service delivery ï¿½ rather than
waiting for the grids to extend," he said.
The report sets out a new, multi-tier framework for measuring people's
access to energy, developed by Practical Action with the UN and the
World Bank, as an alternative to current systems that it says ignore
the needs of poor people by focusing on large-scale, grid-based energy
"Critical to determining how we tackle energy poverty is the way in
which access to energy is defined," it says. "In the past, energy
access has been described as household connection to grid electricity
and the use of a modern fuel. This fails to recognise the use of
energy for productive ends or community services, neglects the role of
intermediate energy technologies and does not consider how people use
and ultimately benefit from energy."
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