The link between energy access and health outcomes
Recently, I attended the SEforAll 2018 forum in Lisbon. The event focused on the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) and how far we have come in terms of meeting the objectives of this ambitious target and how much progress we still have to make
I attended a number of panel discussions and one reoccurring theme had a strong impact on me which was the relationship between energy access and health outcomes.
In one of the final sessions – “Energy and Health - Building Bridges” a participant - Maria Neira from the World Health Organisation explained that we need to start looking at these sectors in a more holistic way to achieve healthy outcomes. She stressed that we will not achieve SDG 3 without energizing health - a very sobering thought. It was clear from the discussion that there are siloed approaches to these sectors - energy people think in terms of energy access, healthcare looks at health outcomes and never the twain shall meet. However, more cross sectorial thinking is essential to tackle the essence of the problem as opposed to working around it, which is what is happening now.
One of the areas where the sectors are intrinsically linked and the health impact argument is the strongest in terms of energy access - is indoor air pollution. There are over 4 million premature death a year caused by air pollution mainly due to the harmful smoke produced while cooking on open fires using fuels such as biomass, charcoal and kerosene. Women and children under the age of 5 are most likely to be adversely affected as they spend the majority of their time in the kitchen preparing the family meals. To put the figures into perspective - there are more deaths from air pollution than all the communicative diseases combined. As another participant underlined, we need to have a similar tough approach for tackling clean cooking as we have now for malaria. However, unfortunately to date, there has been serious under investment in clean cooking.
During the discussion, Laura Stachel from We Care Solar – A company who has developed the solar suitcase - a compact solar system for medical lighting gave a powerful overview of the impact that access to lighting and electricity can have on the health of a woman giving birth in off-grid areas or healthcare facilities without a reliable energy source (according to the World Health Organisation, only 28% of health facilities in 8 Sub-Saharan countries has reliable energy). She explained that without access to electricity, midwives are forced to deliver babies using the light from their mobile phones or the patients are asked to bring money for batteries. Access to hot water to wash hands and sterilize equipment could save many lives in these situations. Also, without access to energy and light, midwives are unable to effectively perform lifesaving procedures.
SNV is also playing its part in terms of energy access and we touch on healthcare through a number of our projects. So far, our clean cookstoves projects have reached almost 426,000 people. In terms of off-grid solar, over 530,000 people have gained access to a solar device. In the Mashaba Mini grid project, Zimbabwe’s first inclusive solar mini grid which we are implementing with our partners Practical Action, the energy produced fuel a clinic - improving healthcare for the local community. SNV has also worked with Goldstandard to define a standard for measuring indoor air pollution from Cookstoves allowing health impacts to be quantified in ADALYS(a well-known indicator in the health sector). However, we don’t measure the health benefits due to energy access as explicitly as we should across all our projects and this really became apparent during the discussion.
So while there are pockets of cross sectorial activity happening, it is not enough. When the SDGs were launched it was hoped that the community would take an integrated approach to them - That hasn’t been the case so far in relation to health and energy. One of the main barriers to this is insufficient data in terms of how the lack of access to energy in our healthcare facilities impacts health outcomes. This is an issue which all stakeholders involved need to work on together to develop.
It is clear that getting energy access further up the health agenda will not be solved overnight. However, it is a step in the right direction to see the need to strengthen engagement between the energy and health communities highlighted in this forum. The discussion was the first in a series of consultations to explore the synergies between energy access and the healthcare agenda.
The hard work starts now.