No woman should give birth in the dark. No surgery should be carried out by candlelight. And no child should be left vulnerable to disease because vaccines cannot be refrigerated. For too long, a lack of reliable power has prevented people in remote and rural communities from accessing the healthcare they need, when they need it. As the race for universal energy access picks up pace, here are five ways renewable energy can help protect quality healthcare for the world’s poorest.
1. PROVIDING ACCESS
Nearly one billion people live without electricity, and 50 percent of them are found in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Energy poverty prevents access to healthcare for millions of vulnerable people around the world. Health clinics, maternity wards, surgery blocks, medical warehouses, and laboratories rely on electricity to refrigerate medicines, power the lights and operate life-saving medical devices. Intermittent or unreliable power source puts lives at risk.
“The worst was seeing a new-born baby dying,” says David Masara, Sister in Charge at Budiriro Polyclinic in Zimbabwe, “and I couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have any source of power.”
UNDP’s Solar for Health initiative is supporting governments to install solar systems in health centres and clinics in rural areas to reach underserved communities. The aim is to ensure healthcare for all, wherever they may be, and that no one is left behind.
“The Government of Zimbabwe desires to have the highest possible level of healthcare and quality of life for its citizens regardless of their geographical location,” explained Clive Marimo – Director for Hospital Planning and Infrastructure in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Zimbabwe.
“The rolling-out of the Solar for health project tallied well with the ministry’s strategic plan of improving primary healthcare. Most primary healthcare facilities located remotely are off grid and the solar project transformed the services of such facilities where basic procedures were not possible due to unavailability of a power source,” he continued.
For example, maternal mortality is higher for women living in rural areas and among poorer communities. The installation of solar panels in Zimbabwe is helping to ensure that health care workers can reduce complications during and following pregnancy and childbirth.
“The issue of lack of power is no longer an issue at all,” David says now. “Pregnant women can deliver their babies in stable conditions.”
2. ENSURING QUALITY
Quality healthcare requires a dependable source of power. For instance, maintaining the ‘cold chain’ for vaccines and medicines is essential and requires refrigeration, cold rooms and IT systems for stock management.
“The Solar for Health is very important in the supply and management of medical and surgical consumables, most so, the cold chain,” explained Dr Mwale Consity, Provincial Director for Lusaka, Zambia.
“Vaccines, which are basically the future of our country, remain potent and viable,” he continued.
Previously in Zambia, power interruptions regularly affected the refrigeration of medicines and vaccines. Yet with support from UNDP and the Norwegian Emergency Preparedness System, Zambia’s 7,000 m2 national medical warehouse now has solar panels on its roof. Covering roughly the size of a football pitch, the panels provide uninterrupted power for the refrigeration of life-saving medicines and vaccines.
3. REDUCING COSTS
Using solar power helps health facilities save money, which can be reinvested to support other priority health programmes.
“The health sector is saving quite a lot; for instance, on the amount of money they would have been spending on diesel power generation,” explained Ian Millimo, UNDP Zambia Assistant Resident Representative.
“You’ll tend to see a saving of up to 40 percent in some facilities.”
UNDP also estimates a 100 percent return on investment within two to five years, when health facilities with unreliable energy sources install solar systems.
While the world is waking up to the power of renewable energy, progress needs to be accelerated and taken to scale. Although investments are increasing year on year, in 2017, globally just 12.1 percent of power came from renewable energy .
Regular power cuts meant health facilities in Zimbabwe previously faced IT challenges. This impeded effective data collection and management, which is essential for managing patient files and tracking cold chain data. The introduction of solar has helped to solve this issue.
“Now we have credible data we can actually rely on,” says David Masara.
The consistent source of energy provided by solar power also helps the health sector to withstand the negative impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events, droughts, and other shocks that affect access to the traditional power supply.
Furthermore, Solar for Health is helping countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Energy plays a vital role in enabling health care delivery, but can also inflict significant environmental harm: energy production and use is the single biggest contributor to global warming . The decommissioning of highly polluting and noisy diesel generators also considerably improves the local environment.
5.INVESTING IN SUSTAINABILITY
UNDP is working in partnership with governments and local communities to ensure the sustainability of Solar for Health initiatives, including system maintenance.
“We are working hand in hand with the government so that we can come up with a plan for repairs, maintenance and replacement of the batteries and even the solar panels,” says Pfungwa Mukweza.
As solar systems continue to promote better availability and quality of health services, particularly in remote, hard-to-reach areas, they are contributing to universal health coverage. In Zambia, Veronica, a grandmother, explained what having the local health facility equipped with solar power meant to the local community.
“We were encouraged to come to this clinic because there is hope here,” she said.
UNDP’s Solar for Health initiative is supporting governments to install solar systems in health facilities across Africa, the Arab States and Central Asia, helping to provide reliable and cost-effective access to electricity while also reducing emissions which harm the environment.
In line with the UNDP Strategic Plan 2018-2021 and as outlined in the UNDP 2016-2021 HIV, Health and Development Strategy: Connecting the Dots, Solar for Health is making a contribution to many of the goals of the 2030 Agenda and its commitment to ‘leave no one behind’. By utilizing technologies to ensure healthcare delivery reaches remote and under-served communities it is helping countries in their efforts to achieve SDGs 3, 7, 13 and 17: good health and well-being, affordable and clean energy, climate action and partnerships.