When energy means the difference between life and death

September 11, 2018

Blog post by Merit Hindriks, Communications Officer Green & Inclusive Energy program

While giving birth to my first child, a series of complications required the quick intervention of an array of doctors and medical equipment. Thanks to their prompt action, everything turned out fine. But this made me realize how privileged my situation was. I could count on good healthcare, well-trained doctors, and the availability of medication and quality equipment. My room was lit, the machinery ran, my medication was refrigerated and my baby was given a safe start. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t had all of this. So what happens if you don’t?

Thousands of women and newborns in developing countries know what happens. Estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that approximately 830 women die every day due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth, and 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries. Obviously these deaths have several causes, most of which are addressed in Sustainable Development Goal 3: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.


Energy as an enabler of good healthcare

People often forget how important access to reliable energy is to ensure quality healthcare and prevent completely needless deaths. Medical centers with reliable electricity attract better educated doctors (WHO, 2015) and can at the very least light up rooms during operations, reducing the chance of complications. They can use medical equipment to monitor patients and provide oxygen and to cool blood, medicines and vaccines – and do so many other things we take for granted in developed countries (see more on cooling in the latest SEforAll report ‘Chilling prospects’).


Household air pollution

The connection between energy and health (Sustainable Development Goals 3 and 7) is also evident on another level. Exposure to smoke from dirty cook stoves and fuels in households causes 3.8 million deaths per year. Firewood and animal dung are still the main sources of energy used for cooking in, especially many African countries. Getting rid of these toxic fumes by providing alternatives to firewood – such as biogas – can save many lives, especially those of women and children.

Fortunately, clean cooking is slowly receiving more and more attention. This October, the WHO will organize its first global conference on air pollution and health. This could be the tipping point that puts indoor air pollution on the global health agenda and leads to policies and investments that encourage the uptake of clean cooking solutions.


Decentralized energy as solution

Nonetheless, there are other links between renewable energy access and health that do not receive enough attention or investments – even though the solutions are staring us in the face. For example, the potential of decentralized renewable energy (DRE) is enormous. Off-grid and mini-grid energy systems are particularly well suited for providing light in operating rooms during emergency operations and child deliveries at night. Whether it is a solar panel, wind turbine or hydro installation, off-grid energy systems are the most reliable, quick and cost-effective solution to power rural medical facilities. The equipment needed for off-grid installations is now becoming more accessible thanks to a growing energy market and decreasing costs. Obviously, using renewable sources has another major benefit: it reduces air pollution and improves everyone’s health in the long term.


So if energy spells out the difference between life and death, the solution is more than evident: decentralized renewable energy. It should therefore be high on the agenda of policymakers worldwide. In the meantime, my daughter has turned 4 months and just received her third cooled vaccination, something that shouldn’t be my prerogative but common practice for all children in the world. Energy, just like good health care, is a right!