Remembering the power of off-grid at World Water Week


August 29th, 2014

World Water Week is a key global event for political, social and scientific discussions about one of our most precious resources. The theme of this year’s week, running from 31st August – 5th September, is Energy and Water.

The conference and its organisers have rightly identified the relationship between the two as being at the heart of sustainable development. Water is used in power generation not only in the form of hydropower but also in terms of cooling coal and nuclear power plants (with a lack of water often leading to power cuts). And in turn, reliable energy sources can deliver access to clean water. For example, in drought-affected areas of Kenya, solar pumps that can draw water from deep underground are proving critical in ensuring irrigation for crops and fighting disease.

However, I haven’t seen much evidence that the World Water Week has enough focus on the technologies or policies that are most likely to meet the needs of those who are currently living without access. The majority of the abstracts for the conference and indeed the 2014 World Water Week report Energy and Water: The Vital Link for a Sustainable Future pay little or no attention to de-centralised energy solutions, despite the fact that according to International Energy Agency, 55% of all new electricity supply will need to be in decentralised systems if we are to reach the goal of universal energy access by 2030.

This is particularly worrying in terms of delivering on food security. Currently around 75% of the global population is fed with food provided locally by small-scale farmers, fishers or herders. Most of these farmers live in rural areas, far beyond the reach of large scale infrastructure projects. They farm with little or no access to reliable energy sources that could enable them to power agriculture (e.g. through irrigation, food processing and storage) and ensure reliable crops and food production.

Farmers in Himalaya community in Manicaland District of Zimbabwe irrigating their farms using power from the Himalaya Micro hydro Scheme constructed by Practical Action with funding from EU.

Farmers in Himalaya community in Manicaland District of Zimbabwe irrigating their farms using power from the Himalaya Micro hydro Scheme.

This is why I will use the conference as an opportunity to look back at some of the lessons Practical Action has learnt from our 25 years of experience in community-led decentralised energy solutions, such as micro-hydro projects in Nepal, Peru and Zimbabwe. I will continue to press for a ‘Total Energy Access’ approach, defined as when households, enterprises and community services have sufficient access to the full range of energy supplies and services that are required to support human, social and economic development.

If you want to hear more I will be presenting ‘Potential for Off-grid Community Micro-hydro Schemes to Deliver for Energy, Water and Food Security: Lessons from 25 years of Practical Experience’ in Stockholm at 11.25 on Tuesday and I’ll be tweeting throughout the week from @lucykstevens .

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