While the world’s most industrialized countries grapples with health care systems that are strained and fraying in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, large parts of the developing world still lack two simple resources that are the foundations for any kind of health system at all: electricity and clean water.
“Nearly 40,000 government health facilities [that] serve an estimated 580 million people in rural India are still operating without electricity supply,” writes Power for All, citing Rural Health Statistics data from 2018. In sub-Saharan Africa, a 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) review found that “one in four health facilities…had no access to electricity, while only 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had what could be called ‘reliable’ access to electricity.”
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Moreover, the WHO “estimates that nearly 70% of medical devices used in developing countries (which are sensitive to voltage fluctuations) fail, with poor power quality a major contributing factor,” notes Power for All. “Imagine the impact of power deficiencies on the provision of health care. Health workers struggle to work in near darkness, relying on kerosene lanterns, candles, and cell phones. Medical equipment dependent on electricity lies dormant. There is no way to store vaccines or medications reliant on refrigeration. Blood banking becomes impossible.”
In the face of the current pandemic, the role of power in our health system gets little thought, despite our utter reliance on a reliable grid, observes Power for All. “Electricity is needed for every aspect of emergency care: medical lighting, laboratory tests, x-rays, CT scans, and the ventilators so vitally important for respiratory care.”
As awareness grows of communities’ vulnerability to disaster if the power supply is disrupted, alternative solutions is arising—both for developed and developing nations. Policy-makers are increasingly recognizing that “distributed renewable energy (DRE) solutions (stand-alone solar and mini-grid) represent a clean, cost-effective, rapidly deployable, and reliable option to electrify health-care centres” throughout the developing world, notes Power for All—advances that could mean 24/7 emergency services, births made safe for both baby and mother, and good neonatal care. Such solar systems will also secure “a robust cold chain for vaccines.”
Limited access to clean water, however, poses a second immediate and extreme threat to the developing world’s capacity to cope with COVID-19.
“Decades of chronic underfunding of water infrastructure is putting many countries at worse risk in the coronavirus crisis, with more than half the global population lacking access to safely managed sanitation,” writes the Guardian, citing the United Nations’ latest World Water Development report. Because people are “generally willing to pay for the water coming into their homes” but often reluctant to pay for the transport and treatment of the waste water that comes out, funding for clean water systems has often been overlooked.
That COVID-19 is wreaking economic havoc at every level, from national economies to household budgets, “should provide an additional catalyst for greater investment,” said Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the UN report. Such investment can produce high returns, with “a global average benefit–cost ratio of 5.5 for improved sanitation and 2.0 for improved drinking water, when broader macroeconomic benefits are taken into account,” Connor told The Guardian.
The benefits of increased investment in global water systems would go well beyond the health system, given the deep connections between water infrastructure and the climate crisis. Case in point, writes the Guardian, is that untreated waste water “gives rise to between 3% and 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than flying.”
At present, “between 80% and 90% of wastewater around the world is discharged to the environment with no treatment.” Investing in sewage treatment, by contrast, could “turn wastewater from a source of carbon to a source of clean energy, if the methane is captured and used in place of natural gas.”
Much remains to be done to connect the dots between clean water and climate, however. “Of the hundreds of billions in climate finance devoted to developing countries in recent years, projects involving water made up less than 1%,” the Guardian writes, citing the UN report.
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