Energy Efficient Prosperity: Low-cost energy tools can yield big benefits

Until a few years ago, residents of the Cato Manor Township, in Durban, South Africa, suffered from the significant health and safety risks that come from regularly burning fires indoors. Nearly half the homes were using paraffin for cooking and heating, along with other fuels like wood and coal. They had no access to hot water, and were struggling to pay their power bills.

But thanks to a programme rolled out in 2011, some residents saw their quality of life improve dramatically as the Green Building Council of South Africa and the World Green Building Council set out to retrofit 30 local low-income houses with a range of energy efficiency improvements.

These houses were originally built to provide basic shelter for five people, and are similar to about three million government-subsidised homes built over the past 15 years.

The project fitted each low-cost home with solar water heaters, efficient lighting, insulated ceilings and innovative “Wonderbag” insulation cookers that drastically reduce the amount of fuel needed for cooking. The community also received harvesting tanks for rainwaters and vegetable gardens to grow their own food.

Merging the environmental goals with development policies, the project offers a glimpse of the health benefits that flow from improvements in energy efficiency.

As communities develop and grow, investing in energy-efficient technologies and buildings can help make peoples’ lives healthier and safer. Both indoor and outdoor air pollution tend to go hand-in-hand with the inefficient and wasteful use of energy. They also carry well-known health risks, such as respiratory illnesses, heart diseases, and cancer.

For low-income communities in small and often cramped housing, the threats posed by indoor fires and the need to gather fuel are especially high. The project showed how simple upgrades that make hot water available and reduce the need to burn fuel indoors can significantly boost residents’ hygiene, health and quality of life.

The Cato Manor “Green” Street is now a living example of how energy efficiency improvements can improve the health, safety and overall quality of life for residents.

More efficient energy use can also improve public health, bringing much-needed medical services to people in areas with limited energy access.

As recently as 2012, 35% of health-care facilities in Sierra Leone had no access to electricity. Energy-efficient solutions helped fill this gap by allowing people in poor and remote areas receive critical services. Medical devices that consume smaller amounts of energy are especially valuable. Energy-efficient, battery-powered ultrasound machines are enabling early treatment of problems such as breach births, while low-watt foetal heart monitors allow doctors to identify and manage birth complications.

In other rapidly developing countries, like India, energy efficiency upgrades are also improving safety and community cohesion outside the home. After authorities installed more efficient lighting along a major street in Mumbai, more than 85% of surveyed residents reported feeling safer.

Elsewhere in India, the World Health Organization is supporting retrofits and interventions in informal settlements to improve heating, cooling and natural ventilation, aiming to reduce the rates of stroke, respiratory illness, vector-borne diseases and tuberculosis among some of the poorest populations.

This is the second of a five-part series on energy efficiency focusing on real-life examples in developing countries (Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5). Check out #EnergyEfficientWorld on Twitter to join the conversation.