Even as African countries join the rest of the world in Durban to evaluate the impact of climate change on livelihoods, there are concerns about the use of solar energy, which was once heralded as an environmental solution to energy needs, rapidly gaining popularity in African countries.
Along with prior perceptions of environmental friendliness, solar energy is marketed as cheap power for businesses and households in resource-poor settings, especially in regions such as eastern and southern Africa.
However, scientists now warn that solar energy is not all that clean. In fact, they argue, it might be contributing to environmental pollution and diseases in women and children.
At the Durban meeting, organisations have lined up several activities and meetings to showcase how important solar power and other renewable energies are, but many are silent on the downside of these energies, such as lead poisoning.
The problem is that solar energy relies heavily on lead batteries to store the energy it creates.
A recent study warns that this means solar power is contributing to the atmosphere’s pollution, rather than reducing it.
Giving the example of China and India, the study authors, Prof Chris Cherry and Perry Gottesfeld note that the solar power’s reliance on lead batteries has the potential to release more than 2.4 million tons of lead pollution in the two countries.
Published in a recent Energy Policy Journal, the authors say this will negatively affect public health and contaminate the environment. This in turn will increase the burden of disease, which tends to be shouldered by women as caregivers.
Lead poisoning can lead to adverse health effects on the reproductive system of women and men, as well as learning impairments, and hyperactive and violent behaviour in children.
Studies show elevated lead levels in a pregnant woman are more likely to lead to miscarriage, premature babies or those with low birth weights.
In men, it can lead to infertility resulting from low sperm count, poor sperm morphology and motility.
In many cases, infertility in men results in increased violence against women, especially in African societies where men are considered not to be infertile and women receive all the blame for not conceiving.
In children, the classic signs and symptoms of lead poisoning are loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, weight loss, anaemia, kidney failure, and irritability.
Such children encounter serious impaired development including difficulties in talking and use of words.
Living in a society where women are the main caregivers,an increased disease burden in children is likely to add to already high levels of care workloads.
The release of the findings by Prof Cherry and Gottesfeld is critical because it comes at a time when major investors are descending on eastern and southern African countries establishing companies that offer solar panels and gadgets.
Households and business in southern and eastern Africa have installed solar panels to counter regular power ration-ing and rising electricity bills.
In rural areas where electricity is out of reach for many, people are increasingly turning to solar power as an alternative. However, it’s important to note that solar power is also having an immensely positive impact in many areas that are likely to improve the well-being of women and children.
In remote areas of many African countries, solar energy makes many things possible: for example, vaccines can now be stored in fridges powered by solar energy, significantly reducing wastages and helping to cut down on child mortality and illnesses.
The solar business is also generating employment for many young people, including women.
What is needed is mechanisms that ensure solar power and the lead batteries are utilised in an environmentally friendly manner that safeguards the health and economic interests of women and children.
It’s obvious that there are many benefits of solar power.
What is needed is to have this energy produced and utilised in a responsible and accountable manner that would ultimately protect the environment, and be beneficial in protecting women and children.
* Okwemba is a writer with the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS). This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service and AWCFS special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism for no Gender Violence and the COP17 Conference.