Politics of Poverty

People should not be dying for energy access

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Afghan woman at the site of the suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 23, 2016. Photo: Reuters

Sadly, energy access and global conflict are not-so-separate issues.

The people on Oxfam’s humanitarian teams are my heroes. My work, while important, and I am so thankful to be able to do, is largely policy wonk stuff. I get to travel occasionally, but it’s largely for conferences, meetings, and briefings. Our humanitarian teams however are on the front lines, dealing with the awful situations and violence in fragile and conflict affected states that we’re unfortunately seeing on the news on a daily basis. And while I am deeply upset by it,  I must admit, I often see it, feel terrible, and then I think “well, it’s not really my issue.”

Not anymore.

Over the weekend there was the tragic news of the terrorist attack on protestors in Kabul. Attacking people as they exercise their right to protest is particularly insidious. The Hazaras people – a traditionally marginalized group in Afghanistan – were protesting the installation of a new power line that had been directed away from their communities, further restricting their already limited access to resources.  They were protesting for their right to energy access, and 80 people died for it.

The links between energy access and peace and security are well documented. Energy access, with its critical links to development, is essential for stability and prosperity. The volatility of some energy sources, especially fossil fuels, and its resulting scarcity has even been the cause for war. Now add to that, how most fragile states have extremely low energy access levels (Afghanistan’s for example at around 40 percent), and this problem will only get worse.

The tragedy in Kabul also highlights one of the central issues with most energy access plans. While large scale, on-grid power options are needed and part of the solution, they have a terrible record of ensuring energy for the poorest – in this case the Hazaras people dealing with a reroute of the planned power lines. Projects like this, when implemented so poorly, not only exacerbate inequalities, but directly put people at greater risk.

There is an easier fix to this. Off-grid, clean energy solutions can be deployed much easier, faster, and at a fraction of the cost. Importantly, they can be targeted to directly benefit the poorest and marginalized groups. This is not to say that on-grid power should not be part of the solution, but at a minimum any type of grid-roll out plan should be done in concert with off-grid options to ensure energy access for all.

This is what we mean by an integrated approach for energy access, one that has the right mix of on-grid and off-grid solutions. Yet sadly it is still being overly dominated by an assumption that on-grid power is the energy savior. Sadly, it is not. In reality, it is extremely risky, and more and more projects are coming to this realization. For fragile and conflict-affected states especially, the risk is far too high to keep ignoring the simpler and cleaner energy solutions that are available.

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