Nearly 1 billion people in low- and middle-income countries lack access to health facilities with reliable electricity, joint report by WHO, World Bank and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found.
Electricity is essential to powering medical equipment like ventilators, incubators, and cold chain storage for vaccines, as well as basic hospital needs like computers and air circulation systems needed to keep them running smoothly. Without a steady supply of electricity, healthcare services such as childbirth, emergency care, and vaccinations cannot be adequately provided.
However, as important as it is, electrification of the healthcare infrastructure has long been neglected, leaving eight percent of the world’s population at risk of not being able to reliably access the care they need. In total, more than 430 million people are served by medical facilities without any electricity at all.
The report is the first of its kind to map electricity access in low- and middle-income countries around the world, revealing significant gaps in access to electricity in the world’s poorest countries. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, only half of health facilities reported having reliable access to electricity, while 12-15%, or 25,000 facilities, reported having no electricity at all.
“It is simply unacceptable that tens of thousands of clinics are in rural areas of Asia and Africa And Latin America is equipped with little more than kerosene lanterns and rapid diagnostic tests.” “The image of healthcare providers leaning over a patient’s bed, holding his pulse under a fading kerosene lamp — should be relegated once and for all to the annals of history.”
$4.9 billion to bring the facilities up to minimum standards
At least 912 million people across Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa depend on medical facilities without access to electricity or unreliable power supplies. An analysis by the World Bank in the report found that nearly two-thirds of utilities across these regions need urgent intervention to improve their access to reliable electricity.
With more than 100,000 facilities requiring new off-grid electrical connections and more than 230,000 others needing a backup power system, the World Bank estimates $4.9 billion is needed to bring them up to a minimum electrification level.
But the cost estimate is only limited to the most basic level of energy needs required to run basic health services, set at 15 kWh for non-hospitals such as clinics and 500 kWh for hospitals, and does not reflect the same standard found in hospitals in rich countries.
But increasing access to power outside hospitals to 32 kWh, which would allow a broader range of healthcare services to be provided, increases the price to $8.9 billion.
Importantly, the estimates do not include costs related to the purchase of new medical equipment. The report found that electrification without a parallel investment in such equipment would be an incomplete strategy, which means that the real amount of investment required is higher than the numbers presented in the report.
“This amount required is far less than the social cost of inaction,” the report said.
No need to “wait for the network”
Extending the central grid has long served as the go-to strategy for expanding access to energy. But this approach often falls short when trying to reach rural and remote areas in low-income countries because of the distance that the network needs to extend to reach the population living in the most remote areas of the country and its central network.
Technological advances and falling prices in renewables, particularly solar energy, have led to a rethinking of the grid-based approach. Instead, the report finds that decentralized sustainable energy solutions are often “the most technically and economically feasible solution” to reach people living in areas with challenging terrain to expand traditional infrastructure.
In a presentation given at the report’s launch, Dr Maria Neira, Deputy Assistant Director-General for Healthier Populations at WHO, said there were “no excuses” for the lack of progress in increasing access to decentralized and sustainable energy sources given their availability and presence. Affordability of these technologies.
“No need to wait for the network. Irina mentioned the role of centralized renewable energy in increasing access to electricity. It’s cheap and more adaptable to climate change. This is a major development priority because it saves lives.
Decentralized approaches have the added advantage of allowing healthcare facilities to become energy independent, insulating them from the risks of fuel shortages or price shocks inherent in dependence on fuel generators. The higher reliability of renewable energy solutions, in turn, means higher runtime for life-saving medical equipment, and necessities such as access to clean water, especially in areas prone to water insecurity or extreme weather events.
“Solutions are readily available and deployable,” the report added. “the effect on Saving lives and improving the health of vulnerable populations would be enormous.”
Access to electricity is a story of inequality
The stark inequalities in access to reliable electricity in healthcare facilities emerge when different countries are compared on the basis of income, type of facility, and location.
In general, utilities in low-income countries have less access to reliable electricity than those in lower-middle-income countries. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the lowest rates of electrification, followed by the Pacific and East Asian regions.
Low rates of electrification of medical facilities are often symptoms of a broader underdevelopment of power infrastructure. In South Sudan, for example, total access to energy—not to mention medical facilities—was estimated at only 7.24% nationally.
Disparities in access to electricity also appear within countries. Non-hospital health care facilities such as primary health care centers, which often serve poorer areas due to lower operating costs, tend to have less reliable electrical supplies than hospitals. A gap can also be seen between urban and rural areas, with urban healthcare facilities reporting better access to rural facilities in the same country.
Until the electricity gap is closed, one-eighth of the world’s population, the population of the United States, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Germany combined, remains in medical no-man’s-land.
“Access to electricity in healthcare facilities can make the difference between life and death,” said Nera.
Image credits: WHO and World Bank.
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