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close this bookEnergy as an Instrument for Socio-economic Development (UNDP, 1995, 114 p.)
View the document1. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development
View the document2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards
View the document3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation
View the document4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective

2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards


Poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. While growing pockets of poverty are visible even in the industrialized world, "the fundamental reality of developing countries is the poverty of the majority of human beings who live in them."2 Whether measured in terms of nutrition levels, health and education status, income and employment, or quality of shelter, a majority of people in the developing world exist at sub-standard levels, where the struggle for daily survival is unending. The chief characteristic of poverty is that basic human needs - food, shelter, health care, education, and livelihoods - remain unfulfilled.

It is tempting to associate poverty with inadequate energy consumption, but to simply correlate these two conditions obscures the fact that the poor use energy very inefficiently, primarily because the technologies available to them are abysmally inefficient.

The real determinant of poverty is the level of services that energy provides - heat for cooking and illumination, accessible water supply for personal and domestic needs, enhanced productivity of labor, etc. In the face of inadequate inanimate energy and of a lack of access to efficient technologies of energy use, the poor are forced to depend on their own labor, animal power, and biomass energy resources to meet their survival needs. Poverty and scarcity of energy services go hand in hand, and exist in a synergistic relationship.

Recognizing the importance of this relationship increases the range of options for addressing poverty; the goal must become not just increasing the magnitude of energy consumption, but also (and even more importantly) improving the efficiency of energy utilization. To reduce poverty and improve living standards, energy services must be dramatically augmented. This is the challenge, a challenge that is aggravated by growing populations already facing shortages of inanimate energy. Failure will contribute to perpetuating poverty, and success can lead to the achievement of equitable, ecologically sound and sustainable development.

Village Energy Consumption Patterns

The vast majority of the world's poor live in rural areas, mostly in villages. In order to understand how low levels of energy services become an obstacle to improving living standards, it is necessary to first examine the nature of energy consumption patterns at the village level.

Several studies have examined patterns of energy consumption in villages. One of the earliest was a study of six villages in the Ungra region of Tumkur District, Karnataka State, South India, carried out in the late 1970s.3

Table 2.1 - Pura Energy Source-Activity Matrix 1977 (×106 kcals/year)



























































Total energy = 928 × 106 kcal/year; = 1.079 × 106 Wht/year; = 2955 kWht/day; 8.28 kWht/day/capita

One of these villages was Pura, which, in September 1977, had a population of 357 in 56 households. It is 671 metres above sea level and had an average annual rainfall of 127 centimeters per year. It utilized energy for the following activities:4

· agricultural operations (with ragi and rice as the main crops),

· domestic activities (grazing livestock, cooking, gathering fuel-wood, and fetching water for domestic use, particularly drinking),

· lighting, and

· industry (pottery, flour mill, and coffee shop).

These activities were achieved with human beings, bullocks, fuelwood, kerosene, and electricity as direct sources of energy.

Table 2.1 is a matrix showing the relative importance of each of these sources for the various activities, as well as the relative importance of each of the activities.5. A ranking of energy sources (in order of percentage of annual requirement) shows that fuelwood provided by far the greatest amount of energy: 1) fuelwood, 89 per cent; 2) human energy, 7 per cent; 3) kerosene, 2 per cent; 4) bullock energy, 1 per cent; and 5) electricity, 1 per cent. A ranking of activities requiring energy shows that by far the greatest need was for domestic activities: 1) domestic activities, 91 per cent; 2) industry, 4 per cent; 3) agriculture, 3 per cent; and 4) lighting, 2 per cent.

Human energy and fuelwood were both used primarily for domestic activities. Bullock energy was used entirely for agriculture, including transport. Kerosene was used predominantly for lighting, and electricity mainly for agriculture (65 per cent) and lighting (28 per cent), with a small amount used for industry (7 per cent).

Several features of the patterns of energy consumption in Pura deserve highlighting:

· What is conventionally referred to as commercial energy (i.e., kerosene and electricity in the case of Pura) accounted for a mere 3 per cent of the inanimate energy used in the village, with the remaining 97 per cent coming from fuelwood.6 Further, fuelwood must be viewed as a non-commercial source, since only about 4 per cent of the total fuelwood requirement of Pura was purchased as a commodity, with the rest gathered at zero private cost.

· Animate sources (human beings and bullocks) only accounted for about 8 per cent of the total energy, but the real significance of this contribution is revealed by the fact that these animate sources represented 77 per cent of the energy used in Pura's agriculture. In fact, this percentage would have been much higher were it not for the operation of four electrical pumpsets in Pura, which accounted for 23 per cent of the total agricultural energy.

· Virtually all of Pura's energy consumption came from traditional renewable sources - thus, agriculture was largely based on human beings and bullocks, and domestic cooking utilized 19 per cent of the human energy and 80 per cent of the total inanimate energy (entirely fuelwood).7

· This pattern of dependence on renewable resources, although environmentally sound, was achieved at an exorbitant price: levels of agricultural productivity were low, and large amounts of human energy were spent on fuelwood gathering (on the average, about two to six hours spent travelling four to eight kilometres per day per family to collect about 10 kilograms fuelwood).

· Fetching water for domestic consumption also utilized a great deal of human energy (an average of one to five hours travelling up to six kilometers per day per household) to achieve an extremely low per capita water consumption of 17 liters per day

· Of the human energy for domestic activities, 46 per cent was spent on grazing livestock (5 to 8 hours/day/household), a crucial source of supplementary household income.

· Women provided the major part of human labour (53 per cent), especially in gathering fuel (42 per cent), fetching water (80 per cent), grazing livestock (15 per cent), and agriculture (44 per cent). Their labour contributions were vital to the survival of families, a point now well established in the global literature, but still neglected by planners and policy-makers.

· Similarly, children contributed a crucial share of the labour for gathering fuelwood (25 per cent), fetching water (14 per cent), and grazing livestock (33 per cent). The critical importance of children's labour contributions in poor households has significant implications for population and education policies and programmes - but again, largely ignored.

· Only 25 per cent of the houses in the "electrified" village of Pura had domestic connections for electric lighting; the remaining 75 per cent depended on kerosene lamps, and of these lamps, three quarters were open-wick type.

· A very small amount of electricity (30 kWh/day), flowed into Pura, and even this was distributed in a highly inegalitarian way - 65 per cent going to the four irrigation pumpsets of three landowners, 28 per cent to illuminate 14 out of 56 houses, and the remaining 7 per cent to a single flour-mill owner.

Table 2.2 shows the end-uses of human energy in Pura in 1977. Its inhabitants, particularly the women and children, suffered burdens that have been largely eliminated in urban settings utilizing inanimate energy. For example, gathering fuelwood and fetching water can be eliminated when cooking fuel and water are provided as public services.

Table 2.2 - End-Uses of Human Energy in Pura, 1977

Human Energy Expenditure

Human Activity


Hours/day/ Household

kcal/ year × 106

1. Domestic




1.1. Livestock grazing




1.2. Cooking




1.3. Fuelwood gathering




1.4. Fetching Water




2. Agriculture




3, Industry








Since the Pura study, many studies of rural energy consumption patterns have been conducted in developing countries.8 The specific numbers vary, depending upon region, agro-climatic zone, proximity to forests, availability of crop residues, prevalent cropping pattern, etc., but the broad features of Pura's energy consumption pattern outlined here were generally validated.

Poor Pay High Price for Low Levels of Energy Services

The poor pay a much higher price for their energy services than any other group in society The price can be measured in terms of time and labour, economics, health, and social inequity, particularly for women.


The return per unit of human time and labour invested in vital subsistence and productive activities is very low in the absence of other energy sources and/or labour-saving technologies. For example, a round trek of seven to ten kilometres, requiring about four to six hours of a woman's time, may yield only enough firewood for one day's cooking and heating needs in a household of four to five persons.9 An urban middle-class household, in contrast, may spend less than one tenth of the time and labour for the same result.

Studies also show a high correlation between land ownership and access to biomass for fuel and fodder. This traps the landless poor, especially poor women, in a subsistence level of living with low productivity; meeting basic needs for fuel, food, fodder, and water consumes enormous quantities of time and labour that cannot be diverted to more productive or life-enhancing activities.


The direct and indirect unit cost of the energy needed to fulfill basic needs is much higher for the poor than the relatively affluent. Not only is the cost of economic opportunities lost much higher, but the actual cost of energy used for a specific activity (e.g., cooking) is also much greater.10 In addition, there is the ecological price of the poor's forced dependence on inefficient biomass-based technologies (e.g., open cookstoves) in the absence of alternative energy sources.

Lack of available energy has economic costs not just at the individual and household level, but at the national level as well. Agriculture and industry are essential to economic growth in poor countries. Yet their development is dependent on energy supplies. Energy shortages also introduce biases in the distribution of available energy resources; politically powerful groups can influence decision-making about energy policies to advance their own interests at the cost of the majority. This hinders the economic advancement of the poor, which in turn affects the economic development of the country as a whole.


The serious gender and health implications of rural energy consumption patterns have been brought out in several studies.11 Among the most serious costs of energy scarcity for the poor are the range of health problems it causes; women and children are particularly affected, both directly and indirectly, by dependence on increasingly scarce biomass to meet daily subsistence needs.

Health Hazards of Biomass Cooking Fuels. The World Health Organization has estimated that "more than half the world's households cook daily with unprocessed solid fuels, i.e., biomass or coal."12 Moreover, evidence from around the world indicates that firewood, dung cakes, and other fuels release highly toxic emissions such as carbon monoxide, total suspended particulates (TSPs), and hydrocarbons.

These fuels are used primarily in traditional open cookstoves with a fuel efficiency of just 3 to 10 per cent,13 in poorly ventilated one- or two-room homes. Even where ventilation is relatively good (such as in thatch-roof homes), the emissions still have alarming health effects. For example, an early study in Gujarat state in western India found that fuels such as firewood, dung cakes, and crop wastes emit more TSP benzo-a-pyrene, carbon monoxide, and polycyclic organic pollutants than fossil fuels. The study showed that women are exposed to 700 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter (the level considered permissible is less than 75 micrograms); they inhale benzo-a-pyrene equivalent to 400 cigarettes per day.14 Moreover, women begin regular cooking around the age of 13, and, thus, are exposed to pollutants for a long time.

Similar studies - although few in number and not always focused specifically on health effects - have been conducted in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and China (where the focus has been on coal-burning stoves).

The health hazards of dependence on biomass for cooking are not limited to those arising from air pollution. Each part of the fuel cycle has health implications that can be serious. Table 2.3 shows potential health hazards arising from producing and processing fuel, collecting it, and actually cooking with it.

Health and Nutrition Effects of Energy Scarcity. In addition to the direct health effects of cooking with biomass, the growing scarcity of, and difficulty in obtaining, biomass also affects the health of the poor in indirect ways.

The scarcity and high time and labour cost involved in obtaining biomass may result in measures to economize on fuel consumption for cooking by: a) preparing fewer hot meals (this can lead to consumption of stale or leftover foods that maybe contaminated), b) undercooking (this can lead to health problems, particularly in the case of some pulses and oils that are toxic when undercooked), and c) switching to cereal staples that require less cooking, but may be less nutritious (for example, switching from wheat or other coarse grains to rice). There is no documented statistical evidence for any of these problems, but they have been widely observed by grassroots workers in many developing countries.15

The lack of alternatives to human energy for many survival tasks has significant impact on the health and nutritional status of poor women and girls, where these tasks are divided along gender lines. A benchmark study in the early 1980s based on the Pura Village energy data showed that the daily subsistence chores of cooking, fuel gathering, water fetching, and grazing lead to a higher calorie expenditure per day for women than for men. This is particularly true since these domestic tasks are perennial, while agricultural work (where men's contribution is higher than women's) is seasonal. However, women's greater energy output was not compensated by a proportionate intake of food; the ratio of food distribution between males and females within households was 2:1 in favor of males.16

Studies in other locations have corroborated the gender bias in access to food within families.17 Thus, women's lives regularly combine overwork and inadequate food. Surveys by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in India have found that adult women's weights are well below par all over the country; while women stop gaining weight after age 16, men continue to gain weight until at least 25 years of age. Moreover, weight gain in pregnancy among rural women averages only four to six kilograms, compared with the desired norm of 10-12 kilograms.18

Table 2.3 - Health Effects of Biomass Fuel Use in Cooking


Potential Health Hazards


Processing/preparing dung cakes

Faecal/oral/enteric infections
Skin infections

Charcoal Production

CO/smoke poisoning
Bums/trauma Cataract


Gathering/carrying fuelwood

Reduced infant/child: care Bites from venomous reptiles/ insects
Allergic reactions
Fungus infections
Severe fatigue
Muscular pain/back pain/arthritis


Effects of smoke

Conjunctivitis, Blepharo conjunctivitis
Upper respiratory irritation/ inflammation
Acute respiratory infection (ARI)

Effects of toxic gases (CO)

Acute poisoning

Effects of chronic smoke inhalation

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis
Cor Pulmonale
Adverse reproductive outcomes
Cancer (lung)

Effects of Heat

Burns Cataract

Ergonomic effects of crouching over stove


Effects of location of stove (on floor)

Bums in infants/toddlers

Source: Based on data given in World Health Organization, Indoor Air Pollution from Biomass Fuel (1992), and own experience.

Energy scarcity, combined with the absence of labour-saving appropriate technology, poses yet another risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies. Once again, poor women are primarily affected. The burden of traditional rice cultivation methods, requiring long hours of planting, nearly doubled over, appears to contribute to complications in pregnancy. A 1982 study of some 30,000 people in western India showed a sharp increase in stillbirths, premature births, and neonatal mortality during the rice-planting months. The fact that no maternal deaths occurred was probably due to the presence of an effective nongovernmental community health care project in the area.19

The reduction in water consumption, particularly for personal hygiene, because of the time and labour costs involved in collecting water also has negative effects on women's health.

Lack of adequate water for bathing and washing is a major contributing factor to the high rate of genito-urinary and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) in poor women. In one study, 92 per cent of the women had RTIs, many of which had gone untreated for years.20 RTIs can be a significant contributing factor to female sterility, cervical cancer, and uterine prolapse; uterine prolapse is also related to excess load carrying (water, firewood, etc.).21

The health costs of the confluence of energy scarcity, the resultant dependence on biomass fuels and human energy to meet basic needs, and the gender division of labour are extensive. They include:

· widespread protein-calorie malnutrition;

· poor immunity and high risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious and communicable diseases;

· chronic anemia;

· higher maternal/female morbidity and mortality;

· poor reproductive outcomes, including low birth-weight infants with reduced chances of survival, and increased infant and child mortality;

· poor reproductive health status among women and girls;

· depletion of women's health from repeated childbearing, overwork, and inadequate food.

The burden of this syndrome is carried mainly by millions of poor women and girls, who are already the most socio-economically disadvantaged segment in most countries. Consequently, it has serious implications for the health and development status of entire nations. The quality of life for the majority of poor people cannot be improved without urgently addressing these problems, which arise directly and indirectly from unmet energy needs.


The need for social justice - including gender justice - is universally accepted.22 Eradicating discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality is a prerequisite for creating a just society. At the most fundamental level, justice requires meeting the basic human needs of all citizens and providing equal access to productive and subsistence resources.

Energy plays a key role in achieving these goals. Lack of fulfillment of basic needs (for food, water, fuel, shelter, health, and education) perpetuates the poor's - especially poor women's - social, economic, and political disadvantage and powerlessness. Nations must invest in improved energy systems to achieve social justice as well as economic growth.

Low levels of energy services are a serious obstacle to raising the social status of women and other oppressed groups. Dependence on human energy and primitive technologies for survival introduces a whole range of obstacles to social and gender equality:

· The poor in general, and poor women and girls in particular, are trapped in an unceasing cycle of work that condemns them to poor health, little or no education, and deprives them of equal participation in local development programs (e.g., literacy, credit, and income-generating activities), self-government bodies, and social or political movements. As a result, the country's human resource base is seriously underdeveloped. Improved energy services must be at the center of any strategy to mitigate the gender-, caste-, and class-based division of labour.

· Because education is an unaffordable luxury in poor families where children's labour is required for family survival, literacy levels remain low.

· Girls are often deprived of education altogether, or at least receive fewer years of schooling than boys.

· High rates of female illiteracy act as a barrier to new knowledge and ideas that may catalyze women to question their subordination and demand change, or help them to gain economic mobility.

· The demand for children's labour may be a factor perpetuating the need for large families. This may contribute to high birth rates that further deplete the health of poor women by keeping them trapped in the cycle of childbearing and rearing, thus further limiting their participation in change processes and development programs.


1 Srilatha Batliwala is Fellow, Women's Policy Research and Advocacy, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.

2 J. Goldemberg, TB. Johansson, A.K.N. Reddy, and R.H. Williams, Energy for a Sustainable World (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1988), p.28.

3 Centre for the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), "Rural Energy Consumption Patterns: A Field Study," Biomass, Vol. 2, No. 4 (September 1982), pp. 255-80; N.H. Ravindranath, H.I. Somasekhar, R. Ramesh, Amala Reddy, K. Venkatram, and A.K.N. Reddy, "The Design of a Rural Energy Centre for Pura Village, Part I: Its Present Pattern of Energy Consumption," Employment Expansion in Indian Agriculture (Bangkok: International Labour Office, 1979), pp. 171-87.

4 Transport has been included in agriculture because the only-vehicles in Pura are bullock carts, which are used almost solely for agriculture-related activities such as carrying manure from backyard compost pits to the farms and produce from farms to households.

5 J. Goldemberg et al., Energy for a Sustainable World, Box 3.4, pp. 214-16.

6 Pura uses about 217 tons of firewood per year, i.e., about 0.6 tons/day for the village, or 0.6 tons/year/capita.

7 Unlike some rural areas of India, dung cakes are not used as cooking fuel in the Pura region. In situations where agro-wastes (e.g., coconut husk) are not abundant, it appears that, if firewood is available within some convenient range (determined by the capacity of head-load transportation), dung-cakes are never burnt as fuel; instead, dung is used as manure.

8 A. Barnett, M. Bell, and K. Hoffman, Rural Energy and the Third World (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982); S.R. Nkonoki and B. Sorensen, "A Rural Energy Study in Tanzania: The Case of Bundilya Village," Natural Resources Forum 8 (1984), pp. 51-62; K.R. Smith, "Biomass, Combustion, and Indoor Air Pollution: The Bright and Dark Sides of Small Is Beautiful," Environmental Management 10 (1986), pp. 61-74.

9 ASTRA, "Rural Energy Consumption Patterns"; International Labour Organization (ILO), Energy and Rural Women's Work: Memorandum for Implementation (Geneva: ILO, 1981); S. Lund Skar et al., Fuel Availability, Nutrition, and Women's Work in Highland Peru, Working Paper (Geneva: ILO, 1982); and M. Sarin and U. Winblad, Cookstoves in India: A Project Report (Sweden, Winblad, and Chandigarh, Sarin, 1989).

10 Anil Agarwal, "Firewood: Fuel of the Rich?" in Earthscan Bulletin (July 1982).

11 Srilatha Batliwala, "Rural Energy Scarcity and Nutrition: A New Perspective," Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XVII, No. 9, February 27,1982; Srilatha Batliwala, "Rural Energy Situation: Consequences for Women's Health," Socialist Health Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 1984), pp. 75; Bina Aggarwal, Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes: The Woodfuel Crisis in the Third World (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Ltd., and London: Zed Books, 1986); and Srilatha Batliwala, "Women's Access to Food," The Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3 (October 1987), pp. 255-71.

12 Indoor Air Pollution from Biomass Fuel, Report of a World Health Organization Consultation (Geneva: WHO, 1992).

13 Howard Geller, Rural Indian Cookstoves: Fuel Efficiency and Energy Losses (Bangalore: ASTRA, 1980).

14 "Stoves Pose Health Hazard for Women," Indian Express (Bombay), March 18, 1983; and K.R. Smith, "Health Effects in Developing Countries," in J. Pasztor and L.A. Kristoferson (eds.), Bioenergy and the Environment (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

15 S. Batliwala, "Women and Cooking Energy," Economic and Political Weekly (1983).

16 S. Batliwala, "Rural Energy Scarcity and Nutrition."

17 Sarah Lund-Skar, et al., Fuel Availability, Nutrition, and Women's Work in Highland Peru; Development Forum (December 1982), p. 6; Amartya San and Sunil Sengupta, "Malnutrition of Rural Children and the Sex Bias," Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 19-21 (May 1983); Veena Shatrughna, Women and Health, Current Information Series, No. 2 (Bombay: SNDT Women's University, 1986), p. 40; and S. Batliwala, "Women's Access to Food," Indian Journal of Social Work, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3 (October 1987), p. 260.

18 Veena Shatrughna, Women and Health, Current Information Series, No. 2 (Bombay: SNDT Women's University, 1986).

19 S. Batliwala, A Study of the Morbidity and Mortality Pattern in the Mandwa Project Area in 1982 (Bombay: Foundation for Research in Community Health, 1983); and S. Batliwala, "Fields of Rice: Health Hazards for Women and Unborn Children," Manushi, No. 46 (1988), pp. 31-35.

20 Rani A. Bang, et al., "High Prevalence of Gynaecological Diseases," The Lancet, January 14, 1989; and Shireen Jeejeebhoy, "Population, Health, and Women in India: Agenda for a National Strategy" (unpublished monograph, 1994).

21 Shramshakti, Report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector (New Delhi: Government of India, 1988).

22 More than 150 U.N. member states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).