According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. It compromises the basic ingredients of good health: clean air, safe and adequate drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter. To offset these effects, huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed.
As an alternative to burning carbon-based fuels, science permits us to harness power from the sun. Solar technologies that convert sunlight into electricity and heat are not only more sustainable and non-polluting than fossil-fuel combustion, they are also more resilient. Because solar facilities can be spread out and made up of many separate devices, they’re better protected against disruptive events like storms, which can cut off power to large populations by damaging a single generator in a centralised grid. Also, once installed, the cost of operating solar tech is relatively low. Its fuel – light and heat from the sun – is free. Homes, schools, businesses and health facilities in remote locations that face steep expenses obtaining energy from a centralised network can save money by going off-grid with smaller solar installations.
For these reasons, in more remote and fragile areas, where grid energy is expensive and unreliable, or simply unavailable, local solar setups work well. This is the case for an increasing number of AKDN programmes and institutions: From the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park – Kenya’s first fully solar powered hotel; to the seismic-resistant and highly energy-efficient Bamyan Provincial Hospital in the landlocked highlands of central Afghanistan; to the solar-powered “smart toilets” and solar irrigation systems that are changing lives in Bihar, India.
Kenya: Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge
Serena Hotels strive to bring best practices in social, cultural, environmental and economic development to some of the most remote and fragile yet alluring areas in the world. Over the decades efforts have been made to minimise the ecological footprint of Serena properties by moving from fossil-based to renewable energy sources. In recent years, Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge in Tsavo West National Park became Kenya’s first fully solar powered hotel. The impact on the environment has been equivalent to planting tens of thousands of trees over a decade.
Completed in 2017, the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge won the “Extraordinary Business Case and CSR” award at the 2018 Global Best Practice Awards ceremony in Italy. The award recognised the Lodge’s delivery of 100% solar-powered professional textile care through sustainable and energy-efficient laundry services – a day-to-day operation that makes the hotel sector energy intensive. Inspired by this success, Serena Hotels has since installed four additional solar power plants.
Afghanistan: Bamyan Hospital
Health care in the mountains of Afghanistan can be a challenge, particularly for women and children. Until recently, many areas had only one doctor for every 50,000 inhabitants, midwife training programmes were dormant until the early 2000s and over 90% of private pharmaceutical outlets did not have even five essential drugs in stock.
Since its completion in 2017, the new Bamyan Provincial Hospital has brought affordable, quality healthcare services within closer reach of remote rural communities. With over half of its power supplied by solar panels, the facility is assured of fewer outages or disturbances, contributing to safer interventions.
The 141-bed, state-of-the-art Hospital is not only highly energy-efficient but structurally safe and seismic-resistant. The facility – which emphasises the health of women and children and includes a dedicated maternity ward – is made with “rammed earth” construction that provides for better insulation, another reason for lower energy consumption.
India: Solar “smart toilets” and irrigation systems
In Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, the Aga Khan Foundation has begun installing Garv “smart toilets” in government schools as part of its efforts to facilitate access to better sanitation and hygiene across six states in India. These toilets self-flush and trigger jets that automatically clean the floors after detecting a certain number of usages. All units can run on solar power, which ensures that they are always lit and operational. They also come with a bio-digester that treats sludge and sewage, so that once the pathogens are all killed, the waste can be effectively used as organic fertilisers by farmers.
Prior to having Garv toilets installed, the middle school in Patna’s Phulbari Sarif area only had one toilet that was in a usable condition. “…A lot of the boys would venture out in the open. However, the girls would have to go all the way back home when we wanted to use the loo,” says 14-year-old Anchal Kumari. Since having access to “smart toilets” Anchal and the other girls at school no longer trek home for this reason and spend more time in class learning.
Also, in Bihar, where 80% of inhabitants live in rural areas, solar irrigation is improving the incomes and livelihoods of farmers. With up to 300 sunny days a year in the state, solar irrigation systems offer a cost-effective alternative to diesel-powered pumps. The main challenge is the high upfront costs of solar setups. The Aga Kha Rural Support Programme brought together smallholder farmers to share these initial costs, and now a solar pumping system is in place that produces higher crop yields at lower costs. Food security is ensured, and they have higher net incomes and less risk of crop failure. Water is also pumped into the village as a reliable source of drinking water for schools and homes.