by Daniel Schnitzer
A thoughtful interview of Asit Biswas, president of the Third World Centre for Water Management and winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize, on Boing Boing illustrates the striking similarities between the water and energy crises. In it, he makes the excellent point that people always have access to some form of water, though it may not be clean and they may pay a hefty price for it. What he describes as being the essential problem is not a global shortage of clean water. The problem is the lack of access to clean water, the underlying cause of which is the lack of both human and physical infrastructure. One could call the lack of access to clean water and the resulting effects “water poverty.”
Similarly, all humans on earth have access to energy, but 1.6 billion have no electricity and 2.5 billion rely on biomass fuels like dung and charcoal for heating and cooking. The use of kerosene for lighting and these dirty biomass fuels results in health problems - just like drinking dirty water - and are extremely expensive to use compared to clean energy technologies. Again, the problem is not that high-quality, inexpensive clean energy technologies don’t exist, but rather that these people do not have access to them. We call the circumstances created by this this lack of access “energy poverty,” and that is precisely what EarthSpark intends to stamp out.
The similarities do not end there. Biswas recounts the story of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority circa 1993, a corrupt, poorly managed government water utility with system losses as high as 72%. The Water Supply Authority charged extremely high prices for its unreliable service and depended on government subsidies just to get by. In Haiti today, the government electricity utility, Electricite d’Haiti (EDH), runs one of the most inefficient grids in the world, providing power in most places for just a few hours a day. EDH’s system losses, thought to be in the staggering range of 46.02% to 53.59%, eclipse losses in other developing countries: Nigeria 32%, India 27%, Togo 27%, Kenya 22%, Cameroon 21%. The current electricity rate is a shocking US$0.30/kWh.
Kerosene, central battery charging stations and charcoal are not cheap either. Switching to the clean energy technologies for which we advocate would result in household savings of 50% or better, and would have dramatic impacts on health, the environment and productivity.