Small is sustainable

Decentralised energy must be part of Britain's efforts to combat poverty in developing countries, sa

Severe droughts, such as the current one in East Africa that has created a food crisis affecting about ten million people, are likely to become more frequent in the future as a result of climate change. Emissions of greenhouse gases - overwhelmingly by the richest countries - contribute to this trend, which is likely to get worse as they continue to rise. At the same time, at least two billion people lack access to electricity. Industrial countries have three obligations: to reduce their own climate impact; to help developing countries adapt to the consequences of changes that are now inevitable; and to help poor countries gain more access to environmentally friendly sources of energy to meet their needs.

For 40 years, Practical Action (formerly the Intermediate Technology Development Group) and its partners have been working with poor communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, through education and training, to deliver practical solutions to poverty by using appropriate technology such as simple micro-hydro schemes. Our message is that using the right energy technologies can help millions of people to access energy and escape poverty, and that the right technologies are not necessarily new technologies.

In Kenya, more than 95 per cent of the population have no access to grid electricity. Rural families typically spend a third of their income on kerosene or diesel. They also spend large amounts of time collecting and processing wood and dung for cooking - time that could be used on education or generating income.

Practical Action and its partners have successfully introduced around 1,200 micro-hydro schemes, each benefiting 1,000 people or more in communities in Nepal, Peru, Sri Lanka and Kenya. Each system cost less than £5,000 to set up, but each contributes to conditions in which children can study for longer, there is better access to medical supplies and people can start and run new businesses more easily. None is connected to the grid.

From our experience, investment in increasing the electricity grid is often useless for poor rural communities as they cannot access it. Rather, one of the best solutions in many areas is to increase efficiency with the main energy source available - "biomass" (wood, charcoal and organic waste).

At present, biomass is often used for cooking, but it can be effectively exploited through systems such as biogas fermentation pits, which then provide households with energy for cooking, laundry and lighting. This kind of approach - in combination with other appropriate technologies, such as micro-hydro plants, small-scale wind generators and biogas plants - points the way forward.

At this April's meeting of the World Bank, Gordon Brown proposed a $20bn Energy Investment Fund (EIF). One of the aims, he said, should be to tackle climate change in developing countries where communities will be most severely affected. It looks like a step in the right direction, but it is not enough, and the emphasis is in the wrong place.

The EIF, as currently envisaged, is unlikely to serve what should be a central goal: improved access to small-scale decentralised energy for rural communities. Projects concentrating on providing off-grid energy are in danger of being overlooked. Instead, there is an emphasis on relatively new technologies, such as cleaner coal and carbon capture and storage, that are only appropriate for large-scale generation. Further, there is currently no timetable for when or how the EIF's $20bn will be spent, how much will be allocated to adaptation and if any further funds will be made available.

According to our research, $300bn needs to be invested every year to meet minimal progress in energy generation and distribution in rural areas of developing countries (including the poorest regions of India and China). This is $60bn more than is invested at present.

Using technology to help the poor meet their growing energy needs, while limiting damage to the environment, is one of the most important issues for developing countries. But it is likely to be among the least attractive to private finance. The EIF may have a focus on climate change, but it is essential that the UK government and other donors do not lose sight of poverty reduction.

The UK government, the European Union, the World Bank and other international actors should increase their commitment to combat climate change through measures that contribute directly to poverty reduction. This will require increased support for small-scale decentralised energy schemes. If not, rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America will continue to pay the price.

Read more from the New Statesman 'Heat and Light' energy supplement at

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