A View From The Field: Addressing The Water-Energy-Poverty Nexus

As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, January 13-17, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: The Water-Energy Nexus.”  The following post was among the finalists.

Mim, a nine-year-old boy, regularly faces a walk of about two miles to collect drinking water for his family. Image credit: Oxfam International
Mim, a nine-year-old boy, regularly faces a walk of about two miles to collect drinking water for his family. Image credit: Oxfam International

By Evan Scandling

Much of today’s conversation addressing the increasingly important connection between water and energy is focused on solutions applicable to urban centers and developed nations. Yes, smart water grids will be important. Yes, implementing public policies encouraging energy and water conservation can play a key role.

​But what about in the developing world, when the energy-water nexus debate isn’t about reducing demand – but instead about enabling supply?

It is well known that more than 1.2 billion people in today’s world still live without access to electricity. And most people wouldn’t be surprised to hear that nearly 800 million people don’t have access to a clean water source. But how often do we connect these two facts to realize that the vast majority of people living without electricity

Are the same people also struggling to survive without a regular supply of clean water?

Unfortunately a lack of access to electricity and clean water is only a part of the problem. Also absent for these hundreds of millions of people oftentimes is the opportunity for economic improvement. Nearly two-thirds of people who lack safe drinking water live on less than $2 a day. Call it the water-energy-poverty nexus.

Applying holistic solutions to interconnected challenges

When an interconnected problem exists – the combination of energy poverty, water poverty and economic poverty, for example – interconnected, holistic solutions need to be applied. Through our experiences in sustainable rural development in Asia, Africa and India, we’ve seen an approach that works, technically and socially: combining solar-powered water purification systems with village-level micro-entrepreneurship.

From a technical standpoint, the approach  is straightforward: instead of relying on expensive, dirty diesel-powered generators, rural communities can utilize solar-powered water purification systems to pump and purify the local water source to meet World Health Organization standards. Here’s .

With a free, endless source of power from  the sun, money no longer needs to be dedicated to weekly or monthly diesel payments – which is where the opportunities for micro-enterprises comes into play.

Applying self-sustaining, integrated solutions

Most people are familiar with the phrase: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” The same self-sustaining approach must be  taken when providing energy and clean water access in developing regions. By training villagers with technical maintenance skills and basic bookkeeping capabilities, village entrepreneurs are created, who are incentivized by monthly wages (from fellow villagers’ energy or water payments) to manage and maintain the solar and water systems.

When renewable energy replaces fossil fuel, a village’s energy source no longer is a financial and health burden. Instead, with the right operational models enabled through targeted donor funding, a village’s energy and water sources can become gateways of long-lasting economic opportunity.

Addressing the water-energy-poverty challenge in a holistic manner that tackles all three problems is not only a good approach to sustainable development in rural regions, it is an approach that can be considered in the developing world as well. Policymakers, business leaders, non-profits, researchers – the array of stakeholders involved in planning our water and energy future – need to ask: how can integrated solutions be applied to integrated challenges?

[Image credit: Oxfam International, Flickr]

Evan Scandling is Head of Communications for Sunlabob Renewable Energy, Ltd. a Laos-based social enterprise specializing in renewable energy and clean water access in developing regions of the world.

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