Solar power a one-stop solution in rural Bangladesh


This story was originally published on UNEP website.

“A woman of good repute does not go and sell things in a market, particularly in the evening.” This sentiment, found across thousands of rural villages dotting Bangladesh’s river deltas, is at odds with the leading role women play in the economy here. Women are the pillars of production, tending farms, harvesting and processing crops, and raising animal—not to mention managing the household and rearing children.

Yet while women labour, men manage the money. This economic imbalance puts women at a distinct disadvantage.

Now, climate change is making women’s second-tier social position even more untenable.

20 years ago, Rangpur district in northern Bangladesh was prone to seasonal drought, with lands often falling fallow. In recent years, rainfall and floods have forced the women in this village to make some hard choices.

Hauwa and Sabina are longtime friends and neighbours who live in a village called Shakarpur in Rangpur. As the incessant rain pummels their home and surrounding land, they must make the choice between building a stronger “pucca” house, made from bricks and concrete or paying for electricity so their daughters can study when darkness falls.

In Bangladesh, demand for electricity outstrips supply. More than a quarter of the rural population still lacks access to electricity and relies on fuelwood and kerosene for energy.

While men transport firewood, women collect, sort and burn it for cooking, leaving them more exposed to indoor air pollution.

This indoor air pollution contributes to over 49,000 premature deaths per year in Bangladesh and adds to the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Solar power a one-stop solution in rural Bangladesh
Photo: Parimita Mohanty

More sun for everyone

Navigating these hard choices lies at the heart of resilience. But Hauwa, Sabina and the Government of Bangladesh are taking a #SolveDifferent approach that addresses all of these challenges at once.

For many households that have fallen through the cracks of public energy access, solar energy has come to the rescue. The government has joined hands with private sector and development organizations to provide solar panels and associated technologies to communities at subsidized rates.

For Sabina, the choice to switch from kerosene lamps to solar was an easy one. A freak fire from a fallen lamp is still a raw memory for her. With solar powered lamps, she now breathes easy. Energy from the solar panel lights up two rooms in her house and helps her run a television, charge mobile phones and power basic kitchen appliances, that have eased her domestic burden.

For Hauwa, with her four daughters, switching on a solar lamp improved health, sanitation and education for the girls.

“We are able to study in the evening, with the light on,” enthuses one of her teenage daughters.

A majority of the 300-odd households in Shakarpur have been given access to solar based lighting systems through government schemes and with the support of the Infrastructure Development Company Limited, which finances renewable energy infrastructure projects.

The benefits don’t end there. In the neighbouring district of Dinajpur, farmers are now able to irrigate their paddy fields with solar-powered irrigation pumps, improving yields. Solar Gaon, a social enterprise operating in the Rangpur-Dinajpur area helps the farmers install the solar pumps and maintain them. A combination of private grants, credit and equity borne by the social enterprise and supported by the Infrastructure Development Company Limited makes solar-powered technologies affordable to low-income farming communities.

Power generated by the solar pump serves various other needs of the community, like water purification, cold storage for mushrooms and brick making. In a creative turn, farmers use the shady spaces behind the large solar panels to keep poultry farms. When night falls, solar lights powered by excess energy are helping women run classes in sheds to improve their literacy.

Solar power a one-stop solution in rural Bangladesh
Photo: Prashanthi Subramaniam

What are the challenges?

Despite abundant opportunities, many barriers persist. The market is often flooded with cheaper, low-quality technologies that cost farmers more, in the long run. In some localities, families are not covered under any government scheme and continue to rely on fuelwood and kerosene for energy.  

To address this, the Government of Bangladesh is bringing about incremental shifts in the policy landscape, focusing on policies that are both gender and climate sensitive.

Fahmida Khanom, Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change explains, “We have focal points in every ministry that work on these two particular issues. From this year, the Finance Division has ensured that in every budgetary allocation, climate change and gender issues are proactively considered.

“When you think of renewable energy, it must be linked to women’s economic empowerment, easing their burden in a way that protects the environment, prevents pollution and tackles climate change, and bringing additional income for them. This is the opportunity that we have.”

UN Environment and UN Women are leveraging this opportunity through the EmPower (Women for Climate-Resilient Societies) Project in Bangladesh, with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Over the next five years, the project aims to strengthen gender equality in leadership, data, policies and investments in climate change and disaster risk reduction. UN Environment is also supported by ENERGIA, an International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, working on gender mainstreaming and women’s energy entrepreneurship. Beyond Bangladesh, the project will be implemented in Viet Nam, Cambodia and other areas across the Asia Pacific.