31 December 2019
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
More than 800 million people around the world live without electricity, and half of them are found in sub-Saharan Africa alone.1 Yet health clinics, maternity wards, surgery blocks, medical warehouses and laboratories rely on electricity to refrigerate medicines, power lights, sterilize equipment and operate life-saving medical devices. Intermittent or unreliable power sources put lives at risk. “The worst was seeing a new-born baby dying,” says David Masara, Nurse in Charge at Budiriro Polyclinic in Zimbabwe, “and I couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have any source of power.”
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Solar for Health initiative supports countries in installing solar photovoltaic systems at health centers and storage facilities located in poor and hard-to-reach areas. To date, UNDP has supported over 900 health centres and storage facilities in Angola, Chad, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, Nepal, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, largely funded through the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund). As a result, an estimated 34.5 million people now benefit from reliable health services.2
“The rolling-out of the Solar for Health project tallied well with the ministry’s strategic plan of improving primary healthcare”, explained Clive Marimo, Director for Hospital Planning and Infrastructure in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Zimbabwe. “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.”
According to the World Health Organization, poor women in remote areas are the least likely to receive adequate health care.3 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,” Mr. Masara 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 information technology (IT)systems for stock management. “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.
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.
Previously in Zambia, power interruptions regularly affected the refrigeration of medicines and vaccines. Now, with support from UNDP and the Norwegian Government, Zambia’s 7,000 m2 national medical warehouse has 300 kWp solar panels on its roof.4 “There shouldn’t be any break in the way the temperatures are maintained,” explains Naomy Nthele, Sister in Charge at Chongwe District Hospital in Zambia.“With continuous power supply, we know our vaccines are safe and effective,” she says.
The Solar for Health initiative also contributes to extended hours of operation, and better retention and recruitment of healthcare workers in remote settings, ensuring effective, safe healthcare, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.“We used to tell patients to come with candles. Sometimes we were even using the torchlight on the phone. It was very, very difficult for us,” said Veronica Lungi, nurse and midwife at Chikumbi Health Post in Zambia“After they connected the solar panels, every night we’d switch on the lights. It was amazing – it was like a dream.”
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, former UNDP Zambia Assistant Resident Representative.5 “You’ll tend to see a saving of up to 40 percent in some facilities.”
UNDP estimates a 100 percent return on investment within two to five years, when health facilities with unreliable energy sources install solar systems. Additional savings will likewise be achieved through reduced waste of pharmaceutical products due to temperature control, and broader efficiency gain in the procurement and supply management system.
4. BUILDING RESILIENCE
Solar energy is also contributing to more resilient health systems. Reliable power supply ensures that core systems for the management of health programmes can function effectively. Uninterrupted systems for data input and analysis contribute to efficient and accurate quantification and distribution of medicines, patient tracking, and monitoring of overall health system performance.
In Zimbabwe, in partnership with the Government and the Global Fund, UNDP has equipped 405 health facilities with solar systems to strengthen national systems for health. “We are targeting four priority areas” explained Pfungwa Mukweza, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, UNDP Zimbabwe. “The health information system, the cold chain, the maternity and the lab.”
Regular power cuts meant that health facilities in Zimbabwe previously faced IT challenges, but the introduction of solar has helped solve this issue. “Now we have credible data we can actually rely on,” says David Masara.
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.
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, generating electricity with solar power instead of fossil fuels can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide and methane emissions, which are leading contributors to global warming and decreased air quality. The transition from diesel-generated to solar power at health facilities therefore has the potential to greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the health sector in project countries.
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 and the introduction of new business models. “We are working hand in hand with the government to 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. Veronica, a grandmother in Zambia, 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.
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’.
1. United Nations, “Sustainable development Goals: Goal 7 Affordable and Clean Energy”. Available at https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/energy/ (accessed 26 December 2019).
2. The information is provided by UNDP Regional Services Center for Africa.
3. World Health Organization, “Maternal Mortality”. 12 September 2019. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/maternal-mortality.
4. Ulrika Modéer and Tsegaye Lemma, “The future of multilateralism”, United Nations Development Programme, 14 february 2019. Available at https://www.undp.org/content/brussels/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/the-future-of-multilateralism.html.
5. Currently, Mr. Mallimo serves as Project Manager at the UNDP Regional Hub for Europe, Istanbul.
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