Africa: A gender perspective on solar energy  drawbacks

Africa: A gender perspective on solar energy drawbacks

Date: December 8, 2011
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Even as African countries join the rest of the world in Durban, South Africa to evaluate the impact of climate change on livelihoods, there are concerns about the use of solar energy, rapidly gaining popularity in African countries, which was once heralded as an environmental solution to energy needs.

Along with prior perceptions of environmental friendliness, solar energy is marketed as cheap power for businesses and households in resource poor settings, especially in regions such as Eastern and Southern Africa. However, scientists now warn that solar energy is not all that clean. In fact, they argue, it might be contributing to environmental pollution and diseases in women and children.

At the Durban meeting, organisations have lined up several activities and meetings to showcase how import solar power and other renewable energies are, but many are silent on the downside of these energies, such as lead poisoning.

The problem is that solar energy relies heavily on lead batteries to store the energy it creates. A recent study is warning that this means solar power is contributing to the atmosphere’s pollution, rather than reducing it.

Giving the example of China and India, the study authors, Prof Chris Cherry, assistant professor at University of Tennessee and Perry Gottesfeld of Occupational Knowledge International, note that the solar power’s reliance on lead batteries has the potential to release more than 2.4 million tons of lead pollution in the two countries.

Published in a recent Energy Policy Journal, the authors say this will negatively affect public health and contaminate the environment. This in turn will increase the burden of disease, which tends to be shouldered by women as caregivers.

Lead poisoning can lead to adverse health effects on the reproductive system of women and men, as well as learning impairments, and hyperactive and violent behaviour in children. Studies show elevated lead levels in a pregnant woman is more likely to lead to miscarriage, premature babies or those with low birth weights. In men, it can lead to infertility resulting from low sperm count, poor sperm morphology and motility.

In many cases, infertility in men results in increased violence against women, especially in African societies where men are considered not to be infertile and women receive all the blame for not conceiving.

However, Dr Joshua Noreh, a fertility expert who runs the Nairobi IVF Centre, says almost half of infertility results from the man. He adds that on several occasions he has counselled women battered and abused by husbands and in-laws because they are “infertile.”

“There are times when you run tests and find the woman is perfectly fine. Only to learn later when we do sperm analysis that the man has poor sperm quality or no sperm count, hence the cause of infertility,” says Dr Noreh.

In children, the classic signs and symptoms of lead poisoning are loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, weight loss, anaemia, kidney failure, and irritability. Such children encounter serious impaired development including difficulties in talking and use of words. Living in a society where women are the main caregivers, increased disease burden in children is likely to add to already high levels of care workloads.

Countries like Kenya have set 2017 as a deadline for moving towards green energy. Solar power is a key form of this energy. Yet, with lead poisoning being one of the causes of infertility in men, poor reproductive health outcomes in women, and increase disease burden in children, the ongoing talks at the COP 17 have to address this matter with the seriousness it deserves. Even as we settle on certain so called safe energies, we need to fully interrogate them.

The release of the findings by Prof Cherry and Gottesfeld is critical because it coming at time when major investors are descending on Eastern and Southern Africa countries establishing companies that are going to offer solar panels and gadgets. In Kenya, for instance, there are more than 18 companies manufacturing and selling solar equipments in the country.

Households and business in Southern and Eastern Africa have installed solar panels to counter regular power rationing and rising electricity bills. In rural areas where electricity is out of reach for many, people are increasingly turning to solar power as an alternative. Industry experts estimate that over one million houses in East Africa have installed solar power systems, with more people expected convert to solar energy as electricity bills rise.

As for now, East African and Southern Africa market is full of solar panels, solar DC lights, solar lanterns, solar phone charger, solar radios, television, solar torches, and other gadgets. What this means increased demand for lead batteries.

However, its; important to not that solar power is also having immense positive impact in many areas that that are likely to improve the wellbeing of women and children. In remote areas of many African countries, solar energy makes many things possible: for example, vaccines can now be stored in fridges powered by solar energy, significantly reducing wastages and helping to cut down on child mortality and illnesses.

The solar business is also generating employment for many young people, including women. Among the Maasai’s of Kenya, for instance, five women are making a living by installing solar panels to people in their community and beyond.

What is needed is mechanisms that ensure solar power and the lead batteries are utilised in an environmentally friendly manner that safeguards the health and economic interested of women and children.

“Without improvements, it is increasingly clear that the use of lead batteries will contribute to environmental contamination and lead poisoning among workers and children,” Cherry is quoted in the Science Daily, an online newspaper published in the United States.

As Cherry notes, “Investments in environmental controls in the lead battery industry, along with improvements in battery take-back policies, are needed to complement deployment of solar power in these countries.”

Its obvious that there are many benefits of solar power what is needed is to have this energy produced and utilised in a responsible and accountable manner that will ultimately protect the environment, and be beneficial for protect women and children.

Arthur Okwemba is a writer with the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS). This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and AWCFS special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.




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