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Poverty & Energy in South Asia

Main Problems in South Asia
Absolute poverty is linked to lack of access to a number of basic needs, including clean, affordable energy. WHO has estimated that more than a quarter of humanity depends almost exclusively on burning biomass – wood, charcoal and dung – mainly utilised for cooking and heating in traditional stoves. In the project region the number is about 700 million, more than half the population in the region.

Environmental Impacts: The unsustainable consumption of biomass resources not only degrades the environment. The reduction of the biomass resources results in a direct problem for the poor it limits their access to biomass for energy and thereby energy as such.

Health Problems: This high dependence on traditional fuels and lack of access to clean, reliable and affordable energy solutions has several adverse impacts on the lives and health of people living in poverty. In addition to the long time spent in collecting firewood, the use of biomass fuels often utilised indoor in traditional stoves results in severe health problems for the inhabitants. Common problems are: Acute respiratory infections (ARI) in children, chronic obstructive lung diseases (such as asthma and chronic bronchitis), lung cancer and pregnancy-related problems. WHO estimates that 2.5 million women and young children in developing countries die prematurely from ARI each year from the pollution produced by indoor biomass stoves.

No Access to Electricity: Over 1,6 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity, and about 670 mill. of these live in the project region. Without electricity, study and productive activities are limited to daylight hours and development of local production is limited. This reduces the possibilities to increase income and living condition. At the same time, lack of electricity results in poor health care. Improving health and reducing death rates will not happen without energy for the light and refrigeration needed for clinics, hospitals etc.

The Nepalese Example: In Nepal, biomass energy (i.e. fuelwood, agri-residue and animal dung) is used for cooking and heating purposes. Use of traditional stoves such as "agenu" (open fireplace) and "chulo" (rudimentary stoves) consumes more fuel wood and increases the burden on women. Women are mainly responsible for cooking and collection of biomass, mainly fuelwood from the forest. More than 80% of the energy needs are met by fuelwood thus exerting immense pressure on the forest resources of the country with negative impacts on environment.
Use of biomass energy and low-grade biomass fuels lead to excessive levels of indoor smoke/air pollution. Women and their children are generally exposed to indoor air pollution. The indoor air pollution due to the combustion of biomass fuel is the main cause of acute respiratory infection, chronic obstructive lung diseases, eye infection and pneumonia for women and children. It also accounts for higher rates of infant mortality and morbidity and other unhealthy living conditions.

Sustainable Energy Alternatives
There are alternative energy solutions for the poor, who would be appropriate, but often the poor do not have the knowledge/skills to use them effectively and/or they do not have the access to the technologies. The lack of knowledge and skills is mainly due to a lack of information and training. The lack of access originates from a lack of local market for equipment and local service, and lack of local production that can reduce cost of equipment. This is caused by a lack of interest and ability by private market actors and other stakeholders to enter the market and start up local production. This lack of interest and ability is due to a perceived low profit, high start up cost and lack of knowledge. Another factor that contributes to the lack of access is lack of appropriate financing. The study, Power to Tackle Poverty from IT-Power, 2001 has identified that half of the people that lack access to adequate energy today can get this via capacity building and funding for local renewable energy technologies, while the other half will need subsidies in addition. The World Energy Outlook 2002 (Chapter on energy and poverty) from International Energy Agency finds that in much of the rural area the investments to meet these needs with traditional energy supply is too high, and the report recommends decentralised supply based on local resources.

Reverse the Trends
The negative trends can be reversed, by instead of treating Sustainable Energy Technologies (SETs) as money making products, looking at them as part of socio-technical solutions. When SETs are introduced as a tool to reduce poverty, it can be good way of improving livelihood, also for rural women.

In most cases the NGOs work in local areas and receive support on sectoral basis. NGOs can integrate SETs in their activities with focus on poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor.

To reach positive results, capacity building of NGOs is one key factor. The lack of capacity of implementing NGOs, national as well as local, is an important barrier for large-scale implementation of energy solutions for poverty reduction. The partners have found this a barrier in all countries, as only a smaller part of the NGOs involved in rural development and poverty reduction have energy in their programmes while the traditional energy sector does not have the skills and capacity to deal with the dispersed SETs that can reach the rural poor.