Smoke kills. Darkness kills.
Imagine if every meal you cook is slowly killing you and your family with toxic smoke.
Imagine you have to give birth in the dark, and the midwife can’t see to help if things go wrong.
More than one billion people in the world still live without electricity and almost 3 billion still cook using polluting fuels like kerosene, wood, charcoal and dung.
Every year, 4.3 million lives are lost to diseases caused by indoor smoke from fires to cook and heat, and oil lamps and candles to light. That’s one person every eight minutes - mostly women and children.
Every day, women and children die because clinics and hospitals lack power even for light during childbirth, let alone basic electrical equipment or refrigerators for drugs and vaccines.
Everyone needs energy: modern energy services are crucial to human well-being and economic development. Yet nearly one-fifth of the world’s population have no access to electricity and nearly three times that number rely on traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal, crop waste or animal dung for cooking and heating. The vast majority of these people are in sub-Saharan African and developing Asia, and live in rural areas.
Having no electricity or clean, efficient ways to cook brings especially tough challenges for women, including particular risks to their health. More people die prematurely from illnesses caused directly by smoke from open fires or inefficient stoves burning traditional solid fuels than from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. The majority are women and children, who spend the most time around the household hearth.
How cooking kills
In badly ventilated homes, toxic smoke can carry more than 100 times the acceptable level of fine soot particles, which penetrate deep into the lungs. One hour in this smoke has been likened to burning 400 cigarettes.
According to the World Health Organization, more than half of premature deaths among children under the age of five are due to pneumonia caused by breathing this smoke, and there is evidence of a link with low birth weight.
More than one-third of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in low- and middle-income countries are caused by household air pollution. The same goes for nearly a quarter of deaths due to stroke, about 17 percent of deaths from lung cancer and 15 percent from coronary heart disease.
That’s not the only problem. Women and children often have to spend many hours a day collecting firewood or other traditional fuels, depriving them of time for education or other productive activities. In areas where security is poor, they run the risk of sexual violence or other attacks.
There is also an environmental impact: gathering firewood contributes to deforestation and soil erosion, while the black carbon and methane emitted by inefficient stoves are powerful climate change pollutants.
Where there is no electricity, simply lighting the home can be dangerous. Kerosene lamps and candles add to the burden of indoor air pollution and increase the risk of fire and burn injuries.
Doctors in the dark
Lack of electricity is also a huge problem for many clinics and hospitals, particularly in maternal and child health. Energy is vital for basic primary health care: for lighting, vaccine storage, access to clean water, equipment sterilization, and to power other essential equipment.
Yet many clinics and hospitals do not have access to the power they need. The NGO Practical Action estimates that one billion people are served by clinics and hospitals without electricity, with nearly half of health facilities in India and a third in Sub-Saharan Africa lacking any electrical power.
Even when electricity is available in hospitals, the supply is often unreliable. Power cuts can interrupt medical procedures, and fluctuating current can damage equipment. Almost half of vaccines in developing countries go to waste because they cannot consistently be kept cool enough.
Mothers in childbirth are particularly at risk, since babies arrive at all times of the day and night, and emergencies cannot wait till morning.
About 800 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications around the world every day, 99 percent of them in developing countries. More than 20 newborn children die every minute, often because of lack of oxygen.
Many of these lives could be saved if health facilities had reliable access to electricity for basic lighting and equipment such as a foetal heart rate monitor or oxygen concentrator. Postpartum haemorrhaging, the leading cause of maternal death, can be prevented with drugs such as oxytocin, which is cheap and highly effective – but needs to be refrigerated.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Improved cookstoves and cleaner fuels can dramatically cut exposure to harmful cooking smoke. Expanding access to reliable, affordable electricity supply can make polluting, dangerous kerosene lamps and candles redundant, and power vital medical equipment.
In remote areas, decentralised clean energy solutions such as solar lamps and mini-grids can light the way and give health workers the means to do their jobs effectively, saving lives and promoting health.
While women, who are most at risk, stand to gain most from solutions like these, whole communities benefit. And freed from the onerous chore of finding firewood, women can spend their time on more productive tasks, empowering them economically and socially.
The Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative is working to ensure universal access to modern energy services by 2030 – while also ramping up renewable energy and efficient energy use to help fight climate change.
This is the essence of the new Sustainable Development Goal 7, adopted by the international community in September 2015 to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.” But the value of energy goes further than that: it is a key that unlocks progress across all the other Sustainable Development Goals, including those on health and gender equality.
Partners in the SE4All movement, from governments and international institutions to private businesses, banks and NGOs, are working together to deliver concrete, practical solutions.
Using more efficient solid-fuel cookstoves or ‘low-emission’ fuels such as biogas, ethanol or LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) can radically reduce indoor air pollution. Creating a thriving global market for clean cookstoves and fuels is the most viable way to bring clean cooking solutions to everyone worldwide.
This means action such as developing better stoves, providing consumers with more information and affordable financing options, improving distribution networks to cover even remote areas, and addressing trade barriers and national policies that currently hamper the market.
Women are playing an important role on the ground, including many female entrepreneurs who are helping to deliver clean cooking and lighting solutions on a large scale.
Power for health centres
Reliable electricity access for clinics and hospitals ensures vital power for lighting, communication, diagnosis and treatment. For women, in particular, this means safer births and fewer delays in providing life-saving care. For children, it means a safer, healthier start in life.
In areas where grid access is difficult, decentralized, sustainable energy solutions such as mini-grids, coupled with energy efficiency measures, can provide reliable energy.
These solutions do not only help women. By protecting and empowering women through access to clean energy, whole communities benefit from increased economic opportunities, better health and reduced environmental damage.
Time for action
The statistics speak for themselves, yet the grave impact of lack of clean energy on health, particularly that of women and children, is not widely recognised.
Many of the answers are already known, but serious global progress cannot be made without political will, appropriate investment and innovative solutions on the ground.
The United Nations has declared a Decade of Sustainable Energy for All from 2014-2024, with the first two years dedicated to the complex ties between energy, women, children and health.
Two of SE4All’s High Impact Opportunities - areas of action identified as having significant potential to drive progress towards the initiative’s three interlinked targets for 2030 - are focusing specifically on provision of clean cooking solutions and electricity for health facilities.
Partners working in these areas are identifying gaps that need to be bridged and barriers to be removed. They are raising awareness of the problems and their potential solutions, fostering public-private partnerships to mobilise vital investment and build viable markets for affordable products, and building local and national capacity to deliver on the ground.
Sustainable Energy for All is determined to put the relationship between energy and women’s and children’s health squarely on the international agenda.
You can help.
Let’s make it happen.