Off-Grid Solar and Improvements in Rural Maternal Health
Aug 24, 2016
Anne Maria Illes, GOGLA Research & Analysis Trainee
Across the globe, more than a quarter of health care facilities lack proper access to electricity. Whilst conditions in larger urban hospitals are relatively better, the rate of electrification can decline by approximately 25 percent for smaller clinics in remote settings (IRENA, UNF and WHO, 2015). This is one of the main reasons why the linkage between energy access and maternal and child health has been established as one of the core themes of the "Sustainable Energy for All" (SE4ALL) initiative.
If people in rural areas, especially pregnant women and children, do not have access to quality health care services with reliable energy access, their wellbeing can be compromised to a great extent. (AfDB 2014; Chaparro 2016). Consistent electricity is pivotal to enable basic lighting, mobile phone charging for communications, access to clean water via water pumps and is needed to power medical and diagnostic equipment as well as appliances required for maternal and child healthcare. In addition, electricity enables refrigeration for vaccines, blood and medicine and allows basic procedures to be carried out during the day and, in particular, after sunset (van Leeuwen 2014; Sustainable Energy for All).
In many rural areas across the developing world, mothers do not have adequate access to indispensable ante-, peri- and postnatal care. Furthermore, child delivery very often takes place in the dark or by means of torch lights and mobile phone lighting, whilst a large proportion of women do not have the possibility to receive a caesarean section in emergency cases. Unfortunately, due to lacking and erratic energy services, women in developing rural areas continue to die of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications whilst children are very often not been able to receive life-saving vaccines or case-specific care (van Leeuwen 2014; Sustainable Energy for All).
Where the sun is abundant, renewable off-grid solar solutions, used alone or in combination with fuel-based generators, offer an effective way forward in combating sudden power outages and the high cost of traditional energy, and may lead to a considerable reduction in the numbers of illnesses and deaths in notoriously underserved rural areas. Such systems, including solar lights, mobile phone chargers, water pumps, refrigerators, fans, radios, TVs and solar PV panels with batteries - allow health care workers to perform critical work in a reliable and conducive environment. At the same time, reliable and constant energy access in rural areas can help to attract and retain retain medical personnel (van Leeuwen 2014; WHO 2016).
Examples of Success Across Africa and Asia, many health centers are now equipped with rooftop solar panels which have improved their service provision considerably (AfDB 2014). Another success story is the innovation of a lifesaving solar-powered oxygen delivery system to provide affordable and reliable oxygen therapy in logistically challenged settings. The off-grid oxygen concentrator, which is connected to solar PV panels on the rooftops of clinics, was developed by the Canadian paediatrician Michael Hawkes and has been installed in two hospitals in Uganda, with an intended widespread roll-out in the near future. Potentially, this device can provide concentrated oxygen to the hundreds of thousands of children suffering from severe pneumonia, helping them to breath while antibiotics take effect. It also helps children suffering from congenital heart diseases, asthma or poisoning. (MedicalXpress 2016; Biddlecombe 2016).
Daily power shortages at health clinics are a counteracting force towards maternal and child health. As solar PV systems and adjusted solar-powered equipment are more reliable than many grid connections and can be implemented in a much quicker timeframe, they present a huge opportunity for health facility electrification and for health gains across developing rural communities.