Energy Poverty Has a Female Face

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Дек 21 2017

People living in remote rural communities in Tajikistan face serious difficulties in access to energy sources. This is the main reason for the increased pressure on scanty natural resources in mountainous areas. The lack of access to such services as electricity supply has a negative impact on livelihoods in local communities and impairs their capacity for further development. Women and children have to bear the main burden of problems caused by energy poverty.


Many villages in the upstream Bartang valley (Gorno-Badahshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan) are located hundreds of kilometers away from major highways. The only road running through the valley is precarious and fraught with danger for inexperienced drivers. It is often rendered impassable - by deep snow in winter and by high water in the river in summer. At times, scarce vehicles will have to wait for several days whenever the road is obstructed by a rockfall or mudflow. However, the poor transportation is not the biggest of problems here. Local communities have still no access to the centralized power transmission networks, with some villages having no power at all. Families here are highly dependent on tree and shrubbery vegetation for firewood as well as dried animal dung for cooking and heating.

Access to electricity and clean energy sources is an essential element of the struggle against poverty. According to the World Bank, around 70% of the country's population suffer from the universal power shortage in wintertime. Residents of remote villages and towns are facing the fuel crisis even as we speak. Many of them are unable to find enough firewood or biomass they require for heating of their houses or cooking. Villages in the upper portion of the Bartang valley are no exception.

Destruction of Nature



The unregulated felling of trees and uprooting of shrubbery has become the cause of deforestation in uplands where vegetation is scanty as it is. A single household needs 3-4 tons of firewood to live through the cold season. To collect this amount of fuel a vast territory has to be deforested. This also results in destruction of wildlife habitats causing reduction and extinction of wild flora and fauna. Deforestation causes land degradation, deterioration of pasture lands and more frequent natural disasters.

"In our village, there is wasteland 3-4 hectares in area down by the river. We routinely call that place "a forest" although nothing has grown there for some time now. When I was a little girl my parents told me there had been a thick jungle there about 50 years ago. They used to play there. As the village population increased new houses were built. After the collapse of the USSR, everyone started cutting down trees and shrubbery for firewood to cook and heat their houses because we had no access to electricity. There was no authority left to regulate the cutting of tree groves and undertake their renewal. The place is now devoid of any vegetation. Everything was cut down. Even grass and eurotia have become scarce" - says Savribegim Olimova from Nisur village.


"There used to be thick buckthorn overgrowth along the river. Birch-tree and poplar groves would grow in some of the gorges. One would occasionally come across barbery and dog-rose bushes whereas eurotia was growing everywhere. Over the years the situation has changed dramatically. We have cut down almost all of buckthorn and other shrubbery, small groves of trees have also disappeared and there is desert now where eurotia used to grow. Birds and animals have disappeared along with the vegetation. It is only rarely that one can come across a nightingale or a brown bear now" - says Rozik Yaftaliev, a resident of Nisur village.

Smoke from stoves kills



More than four million people die around the world every year from respiratory tract diseases caused by poisonous smoke from poor quality cooking stoves (that use biomass or coal for fuel). Over 80% of those are women and children. It is women that mostly engage in domestic chores and cook meals whereas little children always stick around them. For obvious reasons, no data regarding the detrimental effect of smoke on human health is available for the Bartang valley. But one can hear stories of carbon monoxide poisoning and health impaired as a result of severe living conditions nearly in every house.

"We spend a good deal of time by the stove and have long become soaked with smoke. More often than not we have to use damp firewood or animal dung for cooking. This happens because the fuel is not given enough time to dry up once it is collected or it becomes wet in rainy days since many people stock it on flat roofs of their traditional houses. Quite a few of our women and children suffer from respiratory diseases - they cough all the time and come down with cold more often. Smoke poisoning also happens sometimes. In winter, when people start heating their houses one has to use extra caution making sure that there is not too much smoke in the room" - says Oshurbika Malabekova from Roshorv village.

"We spend our entire lives by the stove. We breath in the smoke all the time. If the stove is flawed or old a lot of the smoke seeps into the house. It is particularly hard in the cold season when we have to cook inside so as to heat the house at the same time. At such times, doors have to be kept wide open to ventilate the room. Occasionally, there is so much smoke that one gets smarting in the eyes. Wet fuel is a big problem. For example, in early spring, when people run out of fuel stored for winter, snow starts melting and soil becomes loose, people set out to collect eurotia. But it is very wet and produces a dreadful amount of smoke. Many of our people are taken ill because of that smoke. They cough, feel unwell, some develop heart problems. Most of all I feel sorry for the children" - complains Amalbegim Olimomova from Barchadiv village.

Hard work


Many employable male residents of the village are labor migrants who stay away from homes for long periods of time. That is why women and children often have to undertake heavy household chores, collect firewood and other kinds of fuel, which denies them the opportunity of obtaining education and employment. In remote mountainous villages, women have to cover large distances on foot and waste a lot of time to collect firewood. Sometimes this has to be done in bad weather and under dangerous conditions. Women routinely handle and carry heavy fagot bands, which has a negative effect on their health and personal development.

"Shrubs become increasingly hard to find. In the past, we used to collect firewood and shrubs in the vicinity of the village. But now, we have to travel a great distance and waste almost all day to collect fuel. I know of cases when children from our valley fell into the river trying to get firewood to the other bank or when women overexerted themselves lifting heavy loads or received severe frostbites" - says Gulsara Kalandarbekova, a resident of Nisur.

"My workday starts early in the morning and continues until the evening when it gets dark. Cleaning, cooking, child-rearing and other household tasks take up all of my time. Taking care of the house and the backyard keeps me busy enough. But I also have to see about the collection of firewood. This takes a lot of time and effort. To collect and bring home one fagot I have to walk as far as 10 to 30 kilometers from the village. I ask my relatives or neighbors to look after my children while I am away. There is almost no shrubbery left in the vicinity of our village of Ruhch. At present, residents of Ruhch have to collect eurotia on the territory belonging to a neighboring village. People from that village are not all too happy about this and would sometimes rail against us" - recounts Sohib Shikorieva, from Ruhch village.

"The main problem for our family is trying to find fuel to heat the house and cook meals. It is very hard to haul heavy firewood every day and travel tens of kilometers with such a load. I often get a pain in my knees and my back. A woman's life in the mountains is very hard" - reports Zainab Alayorova from Yapshorv village.

Heavy Expenses


To provide proper lighting in their homes women spend their modest family savings to buy kerosene and candles. Their use is often inefficient and may even be dangerous. An enormous share of family budgets is spent on fuel to heat the houses in winter, which again adversely affects the overall welfare of many families. However, few of people living in Bartang can afford buying firewood or coal. For most people the cost of fuel is way too expensive.

"At present, 1 kilogram of coal here costs 1 somoni and 50 dirams whereas 1 cubic meter of firewood is 350 somonis. As the cold season draws nearer fuel prices increase significantly. Usually, neighbors chip in together to order a truckload of fuel. Otherwise transportation costs are too high and households could not afford to order fuel individually. However, many households cannot afford even 3-4 thousand somonis to buy fuel that will see them through the winter. Most families in the valley are poor" - says Rozik.

"All members of our family are unemployed. We don't have enough money to buy firewood or coal. It is too expensive. When we were little kids our mother would collect firewood for the family. She is ill now. My sister and I tend for livestock and do all the cooking and housecleaning. Apart from other chores we have to collect firewood and eurotia. In autumn and spring, we spend lots of time first stocking up fuel for the winter and then replenishing it" - explains  Gulanor Shikorieva from Barchadiv village.

There are villages in the Bartang valley where due to complete deforestation of the area local residents have to use bottled gas brought by some enterprising drivers from the district or provicial center (Rushan or Khorog) located some 200/250 kilometers away. This is both expensive and time consuming. Families spend a lot of resources to buy kerosene or diesel used by many households in the upper Bartang valley for lighting and sometimes even for cooking. The price of one liter of kerosene in the valley exceeds 10 somonis.

Missed Opportunities



Women bear the brunt of energy problems. It is they that give birth in the dark, work away in sooty kitchens and face risks while collecting firewood in the mountains. Girls grow up missing out on education opportunities due to the lack of a reliable light source. The lack of access to modern energy services and cleaner technologies takes up a lot of time, effort and resources which the women could have spent on education, families and self-development.

"I do domestic chores from early morning until after dark. I must clean up, cook meals, take care of my children and work in the vegetable garden. The collection of firewood and eurotia is also time-consuming. Sometimes I do not have as much as a couple of hours to rest. In the past, shrubs used to grow on the outskirts of the village, but people have cut them all down and, today, our fellow-villagers have to collect eurotia far away from home. It becomes increasingly harder every day to keep up the housework. Lately I have been feeling sick a lot. It is a good thing that my children come to help me on holidays" - complains Oina Alayorova from Yapshorv village.

Despite the fact that it is women that do domestic chores, often head their households in the absence of their migrant husbands and use available natural resources on a daily basis, they are only too seldom involved in making decisions regarding local development plans and this involvement is mostly more formal than practical in nature. Traditional stereotypes about the women's role and place tend to put severe restrictions on their rights and opportunities to make the difference and make their voices heard.

Clean Energy and Women's Role



"To address our energy related problems in any meaningful way we need access to electricity. We also need to be more proactive in promoting solar water heaters, solar cookers and house winterization techniques. And, obviously, we need to build our own capacity to make sure that our voices are heard" - points out Oshurbika.

Introduction and use of renewable energy sources and resource saving technologies, e.g. solar cookers, efficient stoves, lanterns with solar arrays, etc., will help reduce consumption of firewood and coal, cut down noxious emissions and improve sanitary conditions. This means that women and children will not fall sick as often, families will be saving money, they will have additional time (less firewood forays) to spend on useful occupations, and the process of their children's up-bringing and education will improve. Last, but not least, the pressure on natural resources will be alleviated.

"Last autumn, I almost halved my firewood consumption by using a solar cooker. The solar lantern also came in useful. Our house is small and the lantern gives off enough light to illuminate the room. We turn it on in the evening when it gets dark and use it until everyone goes to bed. We also use it in the morning until the dawn breaks. The solar cooker saves us firewood and time and the portable lantern has become our main source of lighting. We also use it as a charger. I would recommend that everyone should buy such things" - says  Lalbegim Saifidinova from Savnob village.


Alongside with the most well-proven "green" technologies we need to transfer knowledge and skills so that local residents, particularly women, can keep using and developing alternatives that are most suitable for them. The support and mobilization of rural women, building of their capacity, and creation of enabling environment must become an integral part of programs and projects aiming to improve access of rural communities to sustainable energy sources.

No meaningful results will be possible without an equitable and active involvement of women in taking decisions regarding development of their villages. There is no doubt that women can and should become leaders to change the lives of their families and communities for the better.  

Timur Idrisov
Environmental Organization "The Little Earth"