New Internationalist

Power to the people

fire.jpg [Related Image]
By 2030, a third of the world's population will still be cooking with traditional fuel. Tree Aid under a Creative Commons Licence

By 2030, as many as 900 million people will still have no electricity.

Three billion will still be cooking with traditional fuel. More than 30 million will have died due to smoke-related diseases. And many more will be consigned to poverty due to their lack of access to energy.

This warning comes from Practical Action in a shocking new report entitled, Poor People’s Energy Outlook.

The campaign group launches as the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL) is pursuing the goal of universal energy access by 2030.

Energy is a vital tool for improving the lives of people in the Majority World. It can save time and improve health at home; help people earn a living and work their way out of poverty; and power community services, from schools and clinics to street lighting and libraries, says the report.  

Rosa is from Kenya. In a photograph in the report, she is sitting on the soil, blowing fire and arranging the firewood to keep the flames burning as she cooks in a coal-black pot. 

‘For me getting energy for cooking and lighting is a daily worry. I cook for my family only once a day in the evening. The fire provides the light for cooking and eating a meal with my children. After eating is bedtime,’ she explains.. 

Rosa’s story reminds me of similar cases here in the Philippines. In the village of South Upi, in Mindanao, for example there is no electrical power. Women in this isolated village – accessible only by a 45-minute motorcycle ride on a path filled with potholes and pools of mud – continue to use firewood for cooking and candles for light. They are unable to do much productive work after sunset. 

Practical Action, wants to create a global movement for change on this issue. ‘Business as usual’ approaches, will not end energy poverty by 2030, campaigners argue. 

 Achieving universal energy access by 2030 is central to the [UN’s] SE4ALL initiative and is likely to be a key pillar of the post-2015 development agenda. But, the report warns: ‘To date, donors, multilateral institutions and developing-country governments continue to focus most of their attention not on what is needed to achieve this aim, but on what has always been done, which has not worked for the poor. If large-scale infrastructure investments continue to dominate the access discourse, boosting power supplies to cities and industry, then universal energy access will remain as distant a prospect as it was decades ago.’ 

The report also points out how lack of energy aggravates inequality. 

‘Women, in particular, spend many hours in drudgery, gathering fuel, cooking over inefficient stoves and cleaning soot-laden pots, clothes, walls and ceilings. Studies in various countries suggest women and often children spend two to eight hours per day collecting wood. There are also wide seasonal variations affecting the availability and choice of fuel types,’. 

Energy is important for most areas of activity – including farming, healthcare and education. 

‘Agriculture is one of the most significant contributors to the ability of poor people to earn a living and is one of the areas where energy can have the greatest impact in terms of improving existing earnings,’ the report explains.. 

Without energy, medical services in poor villages are forced to close after sunset and inadequate lighting makes it dangerous to perform operations. A lack of refrigeration means medicines are not stored according to guidelines. 

Schools around the world increasingly rely on computers and internet access, but some schools are still unable to even turn the lights on.

‘Today more than ever, it is not feasible, affordable or desirable to connect many rural populations to centralized grids that are slow to deploy, prohibitively expensive, often unreliable, provide minimal long-term employment, and are mostly dependent on fossil fuels,’ says the report. . 

To achieve universal energy access by 2030, a new energy narrative is needed that recognizes the reality of energy poverty on the ground and the full range of services that poor people want, need, and have a right to.

This new narrative needs to ‘encourage the development of healthier energy ecosystems that value all technologies, finance and actors required to bring energy to all people’, 

Indeed, energy poverty is a pressing problem. One can only hope that governments and energy companies around the world step up and think about people, not just profit margins.

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  1. #1 Graham Knight 01 Jul 14

    Unlike Iris I was infuriated by the PA report 'Poor People’s Energy Outlook'.

    It seems to be not really about the poor but those who, for whatever reason, have at least some possibility of getting electricity.

    My fury is only increased when I note that biogas digestors, which are of use to the really poor and of which there are millions in developing countries, are not even mentioned in this report!
    However PA itself gives plenty of advice on making biogas digestors on its website.

    Graham Knight

  2. #2 Lucy Stevens 08 Jul 14

    I'm sorry, Graham, if your impression was that the PPEO focusses on those who have some possibility of getting electricity.

    In fact, a central message we are trying to get across (captured well in Iris's article) was the opposite: that we need to STOP thinking about energy as synonymous with electricity.

    Our concept of Total Energy Access is all about people having the energy they need across different areas of their lives, and in different forms (yes electricity, but also cooking fuels and stoves, and mechanical power). The report has more to say about people's needs (cooking, space heating and cooling etc) but it does touch on some of the different options there are for meeting those needs.

    Biogas is of course an excellent and highly appropriate option for many people, so thank you for highlighting it here. As you note, there is lots about it on our website, and it is a technology that we know delivers well for people (given the right context and resources) right around the world.

    Lucy Stevens, Practical Action

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About the author

Iris Gonzales a New Internationalist contributor

Iris Cecilia Gonzales is a Filipino journalist and blogger. At present, she covers economic news for a Manila broadsheet, but she also writes other stories here and there. She has been blogging since 2004 on various issues including women and children and human rights. She is among the winners in the TH!NK 3 global blogging competition organized by the Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre.

You may email her at [email protected]

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