Rural Energy Poverty – A threat to the environment and women

When we think about the term Energy Poverty, we picture households in the dark, without electricity. These households tend to be in the developing world, particularly in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. But energy is much more than electricity and modern appliances. Rural households, even those in remote communities in sub-Saharan Africa who do not have electricity, consume energy for basic needs of cooking, lighting and heating. Their primary sources of fuel, wood and charcoal, poses the world’s greatest environmental threat and disproportionate harms women and children. 2.8 billion people, which represents 40% of the world’s population, rely primarily on wood and charcoal for their energy needs. Indoor air pollution caused by the burning of these fuels, kills 4.3 million people annually according to the World Health Organization.

Women are disproportionately affected by this issue since the burden of collecting and carrying wood, as well as cooking meals, falls primarily on them. Women and girls thus experience higher exposure levels to harmful pollutants such as Carbon Monoxide which are released from the burning of biomass. These pollutants also have an acute effect on young children, who often remain by their mothers’ sides while they cook.

This is an issue that hardly gets any attention. The air pollution in big cities such as Beijing and Delhi has resulted in the rethinking of energy use and concerted cleanup efforts. In comparison, the indoor-air pollution in much of the developing world remains invisible and a nonissue for governments and institutions. To put things in perspective, indoor air pollution in the homes of 40% of the world’s population is at least 10 times worse than the outdoor air in Beijing or Delhi. The collection of wood and/or charcoal, cooking with inefficient cook-stoves and the in-door air pollution that is caused by this, keeps girls out of school and women from partaking in productive endeavors. While the development community is now focusing on investments in rural electrification through solar lamps, micro grids and such, access to clean cooking energy largely remains unaddressed. It is about time that we recognize indoor-air pollution as a major development issue which contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty which traps women and girls disproportionately.

While the scale and severity of this issue might seem daunting, solutions exist and represent one of the best investments we can make in ensuring sustainable and equitable community development. Improved cooking stoves represent one potential solution. By burning wood and charcoal efficiently and often conducting smoke outside through chimneys, these stoves limit the emission of harmful gases. Improved cook stoves are cheap and can often be constructed using locally available materials. However, clean cook stoves only represent a partial solution since they require wood and charcoal as fuel. Using these stoves does not address issues of deforestation and associated environmental degradation. What is required is a holistic approach to tackling the dual challenge of indoor-air pollution and environmental degradation, which is culturally appropriate, cheap and scalable.

Biogas is perhaps the most applicable alternative for rural communities in the developing world. Making use of animal and plant waste, which are usually readily available in rural agrarian communities, biodigesters produce methane gas, which can then be used for cooking and heating. Biodigesters do not produce the harmful gases that are emitted from burning solid biomass. While biodigesters are more expensive than clean cook stoves, after a short period of time they turn out to be a very worthy investment since they have a much longer lifespan compared to cook stoves and make use of materials that are readily available, i.e. animal and plant waste.

BioD is a novel biodigester which addresses indoor-air pollution and environmental degradation, by providing an affordable source of alternative energy for cooking in rural communities. Constructed with readily available materials, the BioD takes animal and plant waste and produces methane as well as a nitrogen-rich sludge which is an excellent fertilizer. Operating the device is simple and requires only 15 minutes every day. This device has undergone thorough testing in several rural communities in Madagascar and is currently been scaled up in partnership with local and international NGOs through a market-based approach.

The environmental issues that we are faced with today are intertwined with human rights challenges. Rural women in developing countries who have been historically disenfranchised by our institutions and structures, are subjected to the harshest impact of environmental degradation, including climate change. The onus is now on us to recognize and address rural energy poverty, and in doing so improve the environment and lift rural women around the world.

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