Ecological Latrines Catch on in Rural Cuba

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Pastor Demas Rodríguez shows a dry composting toilet in the town of Babiney, in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
BABINEY, Cuba , Jan 31 2015 (IPS)

Most people in Cuba without toilets use the traditional outhouse. But an innovative, ecological alternative is catching on in remote rural communities.

So far 85 dry latrines have been installed in eastern Cuba – the poorest part of the country – thanks to the support of the non-governmental ecumenical Bartolomé G. Lavastida Christian Centre for Service and Training (CCSC-Lavastida) based in Santiago de Cuba, 847 km from Havana, which carries out development projects in this region.

“Over 70 percent of these toilets are in San Agustín, a town in the province of Santiago de Cuba. The rest are in Boniato and the municipality of Santiago de Cuba, in that same province; and in Caney, Babiney and Bayamo, in the province of Granma,” CCSC’s head of social projects, César Parra, told IPS.

Dry composting latrines separate urine from feces. The latter is used to produce fertiliser. They prevent the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors and the contamination of nearby sources of water, unlike the classic pit latrines that abound in the Cuban countryside.

“In eastern Cuba, we replicated the pioneering work of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Man (FANJ),” said Parra, a veterinarian, during an exchange on permaculture among farmers in the region, held in the town of Babiney, in the province of Granma.“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser.” – Local farmer Marislennys Hernández

Five years ago, FANJ introduced dry latrines in Cuba as part of permaculture, a system that combines green-friendly human settlements and sustainable farms. It was involved in the construction of another 30 ecotoilets distributed in the provinces of Sancti Spíritus, Camagüey, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and the outskirts of Havana.

“At first people were sceptical, but they have seen the major advantages of these latrines such as the fact that they don’t contaminate the wells near their houses,” said Parra. “Water quality has improved, according to studies carried out in the places where the latrines have been installed.”

The latrines have been so widely accepted that “CCSC-Lavastida doesn’t have the construction capacity, resources or staff to respond to all of the requests for dry toilets” through its projects, which provide the construction material and specialised labour power.

The organisation is now putting a priority on rural families without sanitation, who live near rivers and wells. And in the cities, it benefits families who have backyard gardens.

Of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, over 94 percent had improved sanitation services in 2012. The sewage system served 35.8 percent of the population, and 58.5 percent used septic tanks and latrines. But latrines contaminate nearby water sources with feces and urine, especially if they are poorly built or maintained.

According to the latest statistics provided by the National Water Resources Institute, 79.9 percent of the 2.5 million people living in rural areas have septic tanks or latrines, while 16.8 percent have no toilets at all.

Worldwide, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and over one billion still practice open defecation, according to the United Nations.

In eastern Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, the country’s biggest mountain chain, much of the local population lives in remote rural areas.

And drought plagues the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, the least developed part of the country.

“Dry toilets don’t waste water,” said Demas Rodríguez, the pastor of the Baptist church in Babiney, who has been here for a decade. “They’re a new experience for us, so the church has the responsibility to teach the community how to use them, and to explain their benefits.”

After using the urine-separating dry composting toilet, the users sprinkle ash, sawdust or lime down the feces hole. The urine is collected in a different compartment, also to be used as fertiliser.

“By separating liquids and solids, we keep the smell down,” said Rodríguez while showing IPS the first composting latrine built in Babiney, in the home of the Figueredo-Cruz family.

“Another dry toilet has almost been completed, and four more local families are getting the materials together to make their own,” said Leonardo R. Espinoza, a builder from Babiney who has been installing dry composting latrines and biogas plants for the beneficiaries of CCSC-Lavastida’s projects.

“In terms of materials, building the dry latrines is expensive because you need at least one cubic metre of sand, 160 concrete blocks or 800 bricks, six sacks of cement and 14 metres of steel,” he said.

Based on the lowest prices for construction materials in Cuba, it costs at least 80 dollars to build a dry toilet – and more than that, if the toilet is tiled, to improve hygiene and appearance.

Using cement blocks and reinforced concrete, Espinoza built a 60-cm high feces collection compartment, which does not drain into the ground. “The total size is estimated based on the number of users of the toilet,” he said.

Dry composting latrines have a special toilet bowl with an internal division that separates urine from feces.

Cuba does not produce the toilet bowls. CCSC-Lavastida has imported them from Mexico. But now it has obtained a mould to make cheaper, sturdier bowls using concrete. If the user can afford it, the toilets can be covered with ceramic tiles.

“In houses with foundations elevated above ground, the dry toilet can be installed inside, to facilitate access by the elderly or the disabled,” said Espinoza. “But in general they are built outside the house, and you climb up four steps to use the toilet.”

Other designs include a shower next to the toilet.

Marislennys Hernández, a 32-year-old farmer, had never heard of dry toilets until she joined the permaculture movement. She and her husband Leonel Sánchez work a 32-hectare ecological farm, La Cristina, in the rural area of El Castillito in the province of Santiago de Cuba.

“For us it’s been a really good thing because it doesn’t pollute, it saves a lot of water, and it provides us with natural fertiliser,” she told IPS.

“Three years ago we managed to build [the ecological toilet] in our house,” she said. “They should be promoted more among the rural population.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Dumped, Abandoned, Abused: Women in India’s Mental Health Institutions

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

Women in India’s mental health institutions often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence. Credit: Shazia Yousuf/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Jan 30 2015 (IPS)

Following the birth of her third child, Delhi-based entrepreneur Smita* found herself feeling “disconnected and depressed”, often for days at a stretch. “Much later I was told it was severe post-partum depression but at the time it wasn’t properly diagnosed,” she told IPS.

“My marriage was in trouble and after my symptoms showed no signs of going away, my husband was keen on a divorce, which I was resisting.”

“The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.” — Smita, a former resident of an Indian mental health institution
After a therapy session, Smita was diagnosed as bi-polar, a mental disorder characterised by periods of elevated highs and lows. “No one suggested seeking a second opinion and my parents and husband stuck to that label.”

One day after she suffered a particularly severe panic attack, Smita found 10 policemen outside her door. “I was taken to a prominent mental hospital in Delhi where doctors sedated me without examination. When I surfaced after a week I found that my wallet and phone had been taken away.”

All pleas to speak to her husband and parents went unheeded.

It was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted nearly two months, much of it spent in solitary confinement. “The nurses were unkind and cruel. I remember one time when my entire body was hurting the nurse jabbed me with an injection without even checking what the problem was.”

On one occasion, when she stopped eating in protest after she was refused a phone call, she was dragged around the ward. “There were women there who told me they had been abused and molested by the staff.”

Not all the women languishing in these institutions even qualified as having mental health problems; some had simply been put there because they were having affairs, or were embroiled in property disputes with their families.

Days after she was discharged her husband filed for a divorce on the grounds that Smita was mentally unstable.

“I realised then that my husband was building up his case so he would get custody of the kids.”

Isolated and afraid, Smita did not find the strength or support to fight back. Her husband won full custody and left India with the children soon after. “My doctor says I am fine and I am not on any medication but I still carry the stigma. I have no access to my kids and I no longer trust my parents,” she told IPS.

Smita’s story points to the extent of violence women face inside mental health institutions in India. The scale was highlighted in a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, ‘Treated Worse than Animals’, which said women often face systematic abuse that includes detention, neglect and violence.

Ratnaboli Ray, who has been active in the field of mental health rights in the state of West Bengal for nearly 20 years, says on average one in three women are admitted into such institutions for no reason at all. Ray is the founder of Anjali, a group that is active in three mental institutions in the state.

“Under the law all you need is a psychiatrist who is willing to certify someone as mentally ill for the person to be institutionalised,” Ray told IPS. “Many families use this as a ploy to deprive women of money, property or family life. Once they are inside those walls they become citizen-less, they lose their rights.“

Ray points to the story of Neeti who was in her early 20s when she was admitted because she said she heard voices. “When we met her she was close to 40 and fully recovered, but her family did not want her back because there were property interests involved.”

With the help of the NGO Anjali, Neeti fought for and won access to her share of family property and was able to leave the institution.

Those on the inside endure conditions that are inhumane.

“There is hardly any air or light. Unlike the male patients who are allowed some mobility within the premises, women are herded together like cattle,” says Ray. In many hospitals women are not given underclothes or sanitary pads.

Sexual abuse is rampant. “Because it is away from public space and there is an assumed lack of legitimacy in what they say, such complaints are nullified as they are ‘mad’,” adds Ray.

Unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions impact their mental or physical health. They languish for years, uncared for and unattended.

“One can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the male and female wards,” points out Vaishnavi Jaikumar, founder of The Banyan, an NGO that offers support services to the mentally ill in Chennai, capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“You will find wives and mothers coming to visit male patients with food and fresh sets of clothes, while the women’s wards are empty.” Experts also say discharge rates are much lower when it comes to women.

The indifference towards patients is evident not just in institutions, but also at the policy level, with mental health occupying a low rung on the ladder of India’s public health system.

According to a WHO report the government spends just 0.06 percent of its health budget on mental health. Health ministry figures claim that six to seven percent of Indians suffer from psychosocial disabilities, but there is just one psychiatrist for every 343,000 people.

That ratio falls even further for psychologists, with just one trained professional for every million people in India.

Furthermore, the country has just 43 state-run mental hospitals, representing a massive deficit for a population of 1.2 billion people. With the District Mental Health Programme (DMHP) present in just 123 of India’s 650 districts, according to HRW, the forecast for those living with mental conditions is bleak.

“Behind that lack of priority is the story of how policymakers themselves stigmatise,” contends Ray. “The government itself thinks [the cause] is not worthy enough to invest money in. Unless mental health is mainstreamed with the public health system it will remain in a ghetto.”

Depression is twice as common in woman as compared to men and experts say that factors like poverty, gender discrimination and sexual violence make women far more vulnerable to mental health issues and subsequent ill-treatment in poorly run institutions.

Gopikumar of The Banyan advocates for creative solutions that are scientific and humane like Housing First in Canada, which reaches out to both the homeless and mentally ill. The Banyan is presently experimenting with community-based care models funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Canadian government.

“Our model looks at housing and inclusivity as a tool for community integration,” says Gopikumar. “The poorest in the world are people with disabilities and most of them are women. They are victims of poverty on account of both caste and gender discrimination and its time we open our eyes to the problem.”

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Missing Students Case Also Highlights Racism in Mexico

The mother tongue of Celso García, a 51-year-old indigenous Mexican, is Mixteca. As a boy, García, the father of one of the 43 students forcibly disappeared four months ago, had to learn Spanish to make his way in mainstream society in this country where most people are of mixed-race heritage. García, a father of four, […]

Good Harvest Fails to Dent Rising Hunger in Zimbabwe

Markets are critical to the success of Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Markets are critical to the success of Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Jan 29 2015 (IPS)

With agriculture as one of the drivers of economic growth, Zimbabwe needs to invest in the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who keep the country fed, experts say.

Agriculture currently contributes nearly 20 percent to Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product (GDP), due largely to export earnings from tobacco production. More than 80,000 farmers have registered to grow the plant this season.

But, even as tobacco harvests expand, food shortages continue to plague Zimbabwe, most dramatically since 2000 when agricultural production missed targets following a controversial land reform that took land from white farmers and distributed it to black Zimbabweans.Food shortages continue to plague Zimbabwe, most dramatically since 2000 when agricultural production missed targets following a controversial land reform that took land from white farmers and distributed it to black Zimbabweans

Depressed production has been blamed on droughts, but poor support to farmers has also contributed to food deficits and the need to import the staple maize grain annually.

Last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that “hunger is at a five-year high in Zimbabwe with one-quarter of the rural population, equivalent to 2.2 million people, estimated to be facing food shortages …”

The report was dismissed by Zimbabwe’s deputy agricultural minister, Paddington Zhanda, who said that “the numbers [of those in need] are exaggerated. There is no crisis. If there was a crisis, we would have appealed for help as we have in the past. We are in for one of the best harvests we have had in years.”

WFP had planned to reach 1.8 million people out of the 2.2 million hungry people during the current period, but funding shortages meant that only 1.2 million were helped.

Last year, the government stepped in with maize bought from neighbouring countries. That year, Zimbabwe topped the list of maize meal importers, with imports from South Africa at 482 metric tons between July and September 2014. Only the Democratic Republic of Congo imported more maize meal during that time.

Agricultural economist Peter Gambara, who spoke with IPS, estimated that over one billion dollars is required to reach a target of two million hectares planted with maize.

“It costs about 800 dollars to produce a hectare of maize, so two million hectares will require about 1.6 billion dollars,” he said.

“However, the government only sponsors part of the inputs required, through the Presidential Inputs Scheme, the rest of the inputs come from private contractors, the farmers themselves, as well as from remittances from children and relatives in towns and in the diaspora.”

These inputs include fertilizer and maize seed. Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union president Wonder Chabikwa said he was worried that many farmers could fail to purchase inputs on the open market due to liquidity problems. Totally free inputs were ended in 2013.

Linking agriculture to the reduction of poverty was one of the first Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a target of cutting poverty in half by 2015. In fact, all MDGs have direct or indirect linkages with agriculture. Agriculture contributes to the first MDG through agriculture-led economic growth and through improved nutrition.

In low-income countries economic growth, which enables increased employment and rising wages, is the only means by which the poor will be able to satisfy their needs sustainably.

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe need adequate and appropriate input to improve their productivity. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe need adequate and appropriate inputs to improve their productivity. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

“Government should invest in irrigation, infrastructure like roads and storage facilities,” Gambara told IPS. “By supplying inputs through the Presidential Inputs Scheme, Government has done more than it should for small-scale farmers. This scheme resulted in the country achieving a surplus 1.4 million tonnes of maize last year.”

The surplus was linked, explained Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, to good rainfall.

Marketing of their produce is the biggest challenge facing farmers, said Gambara, who recommended the regulation of public produce markets like Mbare Musika in Harare through the Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA).

Gambara maintains that the government should provide free inputs to the elderly, orphaned and other disadvantaged in society and consider loaning the rest of the small-scale farmers inputs that they will repay after marketing their crops.

“That will help the country rebuild the Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR), managed by the Grain Marketing Board,” he said. “However, the government has not been able to pay farmers on time for delivered produce and this is an area that it should improve on. It does not make sense to make farmers produce maize if those farmers fail to sell the maize.”

In the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa of 2003, African heads of state and governments pledged to improve agricultural and rural development through investments. The Maputo Declaration contained several important decisions regarding agriculture, but prominent among them was the “commitment to the allocation of at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development policy implementation within five years”.

Only a few of the 54 African Union (AU) member states have made this investment in the last 10 years. These include Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia, Malawi and Senegal.

According to Gambara, as a signatory to the Maputo Declaration, Zimbabwe should have done more to channel resources to agriculture since 2000 when the country embarked on the second phase of land reform.

“Most of these (new) black farmers did not have the resources and knowledge to farm like the previous white farmers and such a scenario would demand that the government invests in research and extension to impart knowledge to the new farmers as well as provide schemes that empower these farmers, for example through farm mechanisation and provision of inputs,” he said.

Everson Ndlovu, development researcher with the Institute of Development Studies at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology, told IPS that government should invest in dam construction, research in water harvesting technologies, livestock development, education and training, land audits and restoration of infrastructure.

Ndlovu said there were signs that European and other international financial institutions were ready to assist Zimbabwe but a poor political and economic environment has kept many at a distance.

“The political environment has to change to facilitate proper business transactions, we need to create a conducive environment for business to play its part,” said Ndlovu. “Government should give farmers title deeds if farmers are to unlock resources and funding from local banks.”

Economic analyst John Robertson asked why the government should finance farmers which would be unnecessary if it had allowed land to have a market value and ordinary people to be land owners in order to use their land as bank security to finance themselves.

“Ever since the land reform, we have had to import most of our food,” Robertson told IPS. “Government should be spending money on infrastructural development that would help agriculture and other industries.”

Before the land reform, continued Robertson, Zimbabwe had nearly one million communal farmers, a number that increased by about 150,000 under Land Reform A1 and A2 allocations.

‘A1’ farms handed out about 150,000 plots of six hectares to smallholders by dividing up large white farms, while the ‘A2’ component sought to create large black commercial farms by handing over much larger areas of land to about 23,000 farmers.

“Only a few farms are being run on a scale that would encompass larger hectarage and that is basically because the farmers cannot employ the labour needed if they cannot borrow money,” Robertson said.

“Loans are needed to pay staff for the many months that work is needed but the farm has no income, so most smallholders work to the limits of their families’ labour input. That keeps them small and relatively poor.”

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris   

Kurdish Civil Society Against Use of Arms to Gain Autonomy

Open market in the southeastern Turkish city of Dyarbakir, capital of the Kurds in Turkey. The city has been a focal point for conflicts between the government and Kurdish movements. December 2014. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz /IPS

Open market in the southeastern Turkish city of Dyarbakir, capital of the Kurds in Turkey. The city has been a focal point for conflicts between the government and Kurdish movements. December 2014. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz /IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, Jan 29 2015 (IPS)

A rupture inside the movement for the creation of an independent state of Kurdistan has given new impetus to the voices of those condemning the use of weapons as the way to autonomy.

The 40 million Kurds represent the world’s largest ethnic group without a permanent nation state or rights guaranteed under a constitution.

“We are the only nationality with a great population without land,” Murat Aba, a member and one of the founders of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), told IPS. “We’ve been split since after the First World War and we’ve never been allowed to rule ourselves. We are not a minority, we’re a huge number of people and we defend the independence of the four Kurdish groups living in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.”“The peace talks between the PKK and the [Turkish] government should take a different direction. They are being done in secrecy without any transparency at all. We are against the use of firearms in our struggle for independence” – Sabehattin Korkmaz Avukat, lawyer for human right causes involving Kurds.

PAK, which was formally launched towards the end of 2014, is the first legally recognised party in Turkey to include the word ‘Kurdistan’ in its name which, until recently, was forbidden for political parties in the country. According to its leader Mustafa Ozcelik, PAK will pursue independence for Kurds ”through political and legal means”.

This distinction is intended to differentiate it clearly from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – the armed group created in the 1970s to fight for self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey and considered illegal by the Turkish government. So far, the armed struggle for independence has killed over 40,000 people.

Today, around 20,000 PKK soldiers are being trained In the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, 1,000 kilometres from Diyarbakir, the capital of the Kurds in Turkey. Many of them are now fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.

The financial resources to maintain PKK operations come illegally from Kurds living in Europe, Hatip Dicle of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) admitted to IPS. The DTK is a political party which also includes members who are sympathetic to PKK ideology.

The Turkish government “does not allow us to collect donations by legal means,” Dicle continued. “There are over two million Kurds in Europe and all donations are sent secretly.” Dicle said that even it is a pro-democracy movement PKK does not give up the armed solution.

However, in recent years, the PKK has been involved in secret “peace talks” with the Turkish government. Through senior members of his cabinet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been negotiating with Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader in jail since 1999 on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara.

The DTK gained strength when the peace process between Turkish authorities and  Öcalan began and, now, “we want this conflict to be over and we wish to achieve a common solution,” Dicle told IPS.

Nevertheless, the secrecy surrounding the peace talks with Öcalan and the PKK is being strongly criticised by those who call for an open process.

“The peace talks between PKK and government should take a different direction. They are being done in secrecy without any transparency at all. We are against the use of firearms in our struggle for independence”, said Sabehattin Korkmaz Avukat, a lawyer advocating for human right causes involving Kurds.

According to Avukat, deep-rooted reform of the Civil Constitution in Turkey is needed. “We want to follow the path of democracy and not violence. Our fight is totally addressed to achieving our own autonomy in a peaceful way. We wish to have our rights included in the Civil Constitution”, he argued.

For Mohammed Akar, the general secretary and founder of a new Kurd cultural entity called Komeleya Şêx Seîd, an organisation dedicated to cultural and educational activities for the Kurdish community and based in Diyarbakir, the road to autonomy in Turkey should not include armed violence.

“We don’t want to use violence to achieve our independence. It may even spoil our claim for democracy”, said Akar, the grandson of Şêx Seîd.  Also known as Sheikh Said,  Şêx Seîd was a former Kurdish sheikh of the Sunni order and leader of the Kurdish rebellion in 1925 during Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s nationalist regime (1923-38).

Şêx Seîd’s name and image had been banned since then until recently, and this is the first time that a civil society entity has been authorised to use his name.

Famous Kurdish writer and political scientist Îbrahîm Guçlu also criticises the way in which the PKK is promoting its political view. He denounces drug trafficking, forced recruitment and coercion of young Kurds by the outlawed group.

“The PKK is an illegal formation whose leader is in jail and tries to manage his entire community from inside prison. We are different and we promote open discussion within society”, says Guçlu.

Edited by Phil Harris

U.S. Ally Yemen in Danger of Splitting into Two – Again

Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Yemeni protesters in Sanaa carrying pictures of arrested men. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

When North and South Yemen merged into a single country under the banner Yemen Arab Republic back in May 1990, a British newspaper remarked with a tinge of sarcasm: “Two poor countries have now become one poor country.”

Since its birth, Yemen has continued to be categorised by the United Nations as one of the world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), the poorest of the poor, depending heavily on foreign aid and battling for economic survival.”This double game was well known to the Americans. They went along with it. It is what allowed AQAP to take Jar and other regions of Yemen and hold them with some ease.” — Vijay Prashad

But the current political chaos – with the president, prime minister and the cabinet forced to resign en masse last week – has threatened to turn the country into a failed state.

And, more significantly, Yemen is also in danger of being split into two once again – and possibly heading towards another civil war.

Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Middle East Institute, was quoted last week as saying: “We’re looking at the de facto partitioning of the country, and we’re heading into a long negotiating process, but we could also be heading toward war.”

In a report released Tuesday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the fall of the government has upended the troubled transition and “raises the very real prospect of territorial fragmentation, economic meltdown and widespread violence if a compromise is not reached soon.”

The ousted government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was a close U.S. ally, who cooperated with the United States in drone strikes against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) holed up in the remote regions of Yemen.

The United States was so confident of its ally that the resignation of the government “took American officials by surprise,” according to the New York Times.

Matthew Hoh, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), told IPS, “I don’t know if Yemen will split in two or not. [But] I believe the greater fear is that Yemen descends into mass chaos with violence among many factions as we are seeing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all nations that have been the recipient of interventionist U.S. foreign policy.”

According to an Arab diplomat, the Houthis who have taken power are an integral part of the Shiite Muslim sect, the Zaydis, and are apparently financed by Iran.

But the country is dominated by a Sunni majority which is supported by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, he said, which could trigger a sectarian conflict – as in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Ironically, all of them, including the United States, have a common enemy in AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the recent massacre in the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris.

“In short, it’s a monumental political mess,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS it is very hard to gauge what will happen in Yemen at this time.

“The battle lines are far from clear,” he said.

The so-called pro-U.S, government has, since 2004, played a very dainty game with the United States in terms of counter-terrorism.

On the one side, he said, the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and then Hadi, suggested to the U.S. they were anti al-Qaeda.

But, on the other hand, they used the fact of al-Qaeda to go after their adversaries, including the Zaydis (Houthis).

“This double game was well known to the Americans. They went along with it. It is what allowed AQAP to take Jar and other regions of Yemen and hold them with some ease,” Prashad said.

He dismissed as “ridiculous” the allegation the Zaydis are “proxies of Iran”. He said they are a tribal confederacy that has faced the edge of the Saleh-Hadi sword.

“They are decidedly against al-Qaeda, and would not necessarily make it easier for AQAP to exist,” said Prashad, a former Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut and author of ‘Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.’

Hoh told IPS: “Based upon the results from decades of U.S. influence in trying to pick winners and losers in these countries or continuing to play the absurd geopolitical game of backing one repressive theocracy, Saudi Arabia, against another, Iran, in proxy wars, the best thing for the Yemenis is for the Americans not to meddle or to try and pick one side against the other.”

American foreign policy in the Middle East, he said, can already be labeled a disaster, most especially for the people of the Middle East.

“The only beneficiaries of American policy in the Middle East have been extremist groups, which take advantage of the war, the cycles of violence and hate, to recruit and fulfill their message and propaganda, and American and Western arms companies that are seeing increased profits each year,” said Hoh, who has served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and on U.S. embassy teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When the two Yemens merged, most of the arms the unified country inherited came from Russia, which was a close military ally of South Yemen.

Yemen’s fighter planes and helicopters from the former Soviet Union – including MiG-29 jet fighters and Mi-24 attack helicopters – were later reinforced with U.S. and Western weapons systems, including Lockheed transport aircraft (transferred from Saudi Arabia), Bell helicopters, TOW anti-tank missiles and M-60 battle tanks.

Nicole Auger, a military analyst monitoring Middle East/Africa at Forecast International, a leader in defence market intelligence and industry forecasting, told IPS U.S. arms and military aid have been crucial to Yemen over the years, especially through the Defense Department’s 1206 “train and equip” fund.

Since 2006, she pointed out, Yemen has received a little over 400 million dollars in Section 1206 aid which has significantly supported the Yemeni Air Force (with acquisitions of transport and surveillance aircraft), its special operations units, its border control monitoring, and coast guard forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. military aid under both Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme has risen substantially, she added.

Also, Yemen is now being provided assistance under Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-mining, and Related programmes (NADR) and International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) programmes.

According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Justification – U.S. support for the military and security sector “will remain a priority in 2015 in order to advance peace and security in Yemen.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Israeli President Calls For Stronger U.N. Action On Genocide

By Josh Butler
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin has questioned the United Nations’ commitment to eradicating genocide, slamming the UN’s genocide convention as nothing more than a “symbolic document.”

President Rivlin used his speech in the General Assembly on Wednesday, as part a ceremony marking International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, to call for greater international action and intervention in cases of genocide.

“We must ask ourselves honestly, is the struggle of the General Assembly against genocide effective enough?” he said, referencing atrocities in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Syria.

“In the face of these atrocities, are we shedding too many tears and taking too little action?”

The ceremony marked 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in January 1945. Rivlin’s speech warned of a “fundamentalist viper raising its head,” and called for the UN to more actively combat genocide.

“[The UN] must push ahead with decisive action. This organisation has a duty to lay down the lines that constitute genocide, and make clear crossing those lines makes it compulsory to intervene,” he said.

“Nations must not be saved as an afterthought or from considerations of cost-benefit.”

Rivlin made no mention of a current International Court of Justice inquiry into possible war crimes perpetrated by Israeli forces on Palestinian civilians in mid-2014. Thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were killed in seven weeks of bombings, actions decried as ‘genocide’ by pro-Palestinian groups.

David Pressman, alternative representative of the United States to the UN for Special Political Affairs, also used his address to call for greater action on Jewish tragedies. He mentioned the town of Gotha, near the Auschwitz camp, whose inhabitants he called “complicit by inaction” in the “crimes of passivity” that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

“If we are to live up to the promise of ‘never again,’ we must recognize the role these bystanders played; people who convinced themselves they did not know, or were powerless to do anything,” Pressman said.

“We must recommit ourselves as governments, communities and individuals, not to become bystanders.”

The meeting was also addressed by Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon and General Assembly vice-president Denis Antoine, before moving speeches from Holocaust survivor Jona Laks and Soviet Army veteran Boris Feldman, who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps.

Laks spoke of how she was marked for death in Auschwitz, before her twin sister begged SS doctor Josef Mengele to spare her life. Both twins were subjected to Mengele’s experiments.

“There was nothing darker about the holocaust than the role of doctors in the killings,” Laks said, speaking of experiments including injections into eyeballs and uteruses, and deliberately infecting wounds to produce gangrene.

Laks spoke of the need for the stories of ageing holocaust survivors to be recorded and remembered.
“When the last witnesses are gone, who will know what happened?” she said.

“The Jewish people paid in blood for the world’s indifference and ignorance. It is imperative the world never forgets what happened, for there are some who would like to see it repeated.”

Marginalised Groups Struggle to Access Healthcare in Conflict-Torn East Ukraine

Social worker in the flat of a drug addict in Donetsk doing outreach work. Drug addicts, like other marginalised groups, including Roma, are victims of the collapse of the health system in East Ukraine. Credit: Natalia Kravchuk/International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine©

Social worker in the flat of a drug addict in Donetsk doing outreach work. Drug addicts, like other marginalised groups, including Roma, are victims of the collapse of the health system in East Ukraine. Credit: Natalia Kravchuk/International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine©

By Pavol Stracansky
KIEV, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

With international organisations warning that East Ukraine is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe as its health system collapses, marginalised groups are among those facing the greatest struggle to access even basic health care in the war-torn region.

The conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has affected more than five million people, with 1.4 million classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and human rights bodies as “highly vulnerable” because of displacement, lack of income and a breakdown of essential services, including health care.

Fighting and accompanying measures imposed by both sides have led to medical supplies being severely interrupted or cut off entirely, hospitals destroyed or battling constant water and power cuts, and crippling staff shortages at health facilities as medical staff flee the fighting.

A complete lack of vaccines is threatening outbreaks of diseases such as polio and measles, while there are concerns for HIV/AIDS and TB sufferers as supplies of vital medicines dry up and disease monitoring becomes almost impossible.Fighting and accompanying measures imposed by both sides have led to medical supplies being severely interrupted or cut off entirely, hospitals destroyed or battling constant water and power cuts, and crippling staff shortages at health facilities as medical staff flee the fighting.

Massive internal displacement because of the conflict – latest U.N. estimates are of 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) with the figure rising by as much as 100,000 per week – has also left hundreds of thousands living in sometimes desperate and unhygienic conditions, creating a further health risk and the chance that infectious diseases, such as TB, will spread.

But while there is a threat to healthcare provision from collapsing resources, some in the region are facing extra barriers to accessing health care.

Ukraine has one of the worst HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world and the spread of the disease has been fuelled mainly by injection drug use. But, unlike in many Eastern European states, the country has been running for more than a decade an internationally lauded range of harm reduction programmes which have been credited with checking the disease’s spread.

These have included opioid substitution therapy (OST) programmes available to drug users across the country. These are particularly important in East Ukraine because the majority of Ukraine’s injection drug users come from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

But local and international organisations working with drug users say that addicts’ access to life-saving treatment in those areas has come under increasing pressure since the start of the conflict and that it could be cut off entirely within weeks as supplies of methadone and buprenorphine used in the treatment run out and cannot be replaced.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance Ukraine which runs many OST centres as well as other harm reduction programmes, has said that stocks of antiretroviral drugs, OST and other life-saving treatments will have run out by  February.  More than 300 OST patients in Donetsk and Luhansk have lost access to treatment since the conflict began, while a further 550 patients on methadone will run out of drugs soon if emergency supplies cannot be delivered.

U.N. officials in close contact with international organisations helping drug users as well as doctors in Donetsk have confirmed to IPS that clinics have only a few weeks’ worth of stocks of methadone left.

One doctor in Donetsk working on an OST programme, who asked not to be named, told IPS:  “There are serious problems with medicine supplies. The last shipments came in September last year and some patients have already had to finish their treatments. Many had been on it for a decade and in that time had forged new lives, put their, sometimes criminal, past behind them and had families. It was absolutely tragic for them when they stopped.”

It is unclear what will happen to all those no longer able to access OST treatment. Doctors say some have gone into detoxification, while others have moved to other cities in safer areas of Ukraine in the hope of continuing OST.

But with 60 percent of those receiving OST also being HIV positive, according to the Donetsk doctor, and reports that many are now turning to illicit drugs and needle-sharing again as access to OST is cut off, there are concerns that the disease, along with Hepatitis C which is rife among injection drug users, and tuberculosis, could be spread, and that the lives of many drug users will again be at risk.

OST patient Andriy Klinemko, who was forced to flee Donetsk with his wife when their house was destroyed in bombing last summer and who is now in Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, told IPS: “OST patients in East Ukraine are being forced to move, but not all of them can and even those that make it to other regions may not be able to continue OST because there is no money left to run such programmes. It’s a bad situation and at the moment I really can’t see any way it’s going to get better.”

But drug users are not the only marginalised community struggling to access health care.

Historically, the estimated 400,000-strong Roma community in Ukraine has, like Roma in many other Eastern European states, faced widespread discrimination in society, including in employment and education.

They have also always had limited access to healthcare because many Roma lack official ID documentation which makes it difficult for many to obtain official health care, while widespread poverty also means services and medicines which require any payment are also inaccessible to most. Meanwhile, many Roma settlements are in remote locations, far away from the nearest health centres.

Dr Dorit Nitzan, head of the WHO’s Ukraine Office, told IPS: “Even before the conflict, Roma in Ukraine had limited access to curative and preventive health service. As a result, Roma children have extremely low vaccination coverage. Moreover, rates of tuberculosis and other communicable and non-communicable diseases are higher among Roma than in the general population.”

Discrimination is also a problem. Zola Kondur of the Chiricli Roma rights group in Ukraine, told IPS: “In terms of healthcare, Roma are among the most vulnerable in the country. They are treated badly because of their ethnicity.”

However, the problems for Roma have dramatically worsened since the conflict began. Some human rights groups have said that since the separatist regimes took power in the region, Roma have faced systematic violent and sometimes fatal repression.

According to a report this month of an international mission to monitor human rights

by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Roma living in separatist-controlled areas have been “subjected to open aggression from militants ….[who] have carried out real ethnic cleansing” against them. Many have fled and become IDPs, subsequently facing health struggles.

Dr Nitzan said: “As in every crisis, if not given special attention, marginalised and vulnerable groups are at higher risk. In Ukraine, many Roma lack civil documentation, and thus cannot be registered as internally displaced persons and are not included in the provision of any health services.

“Moreover, their inability to pay ‘out-of-pocket’ limits their ability to procure medication and/or services. Compounding this is that many Roma IDPs are residing at the margins of society, in remote geographical locations, where no services are available. All of these factors make health services inaccessible to Roma.”

Local rights groups say that Roma who have managed to flee to safe areas have often ended up homeless and starving after facing problems accessing aid because of a dismissive attitude from volunteers and staff at social institutions, while their lack of identification documents also prevented them from accessing any official help.

However, even those who have managed to find treatment have sometimes faced further problems.

Kondur told IPS: “In one case a Roma family moved from Kramatorsk to Kharkiv. A little boy had a heart problem brought on by the stress of the fighting and he was taken to hospital. One night, a group of young people broke the window of the boy’s hospital room, shouting ‘Gypsies get out’. The boy had a heart attack.”

Edited by Phil Harris

When Ignorance Is Deadly: Pacific Women Dying From Lack of Breast Cancer Awareness

Local women's NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women's rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Local women’s NGO, Vois Blong Mere, campaigns for women’s rights in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jan 28 2015 (IPS)

Women now face a better chance of surviving breast cancer in the Solomon Islands, a developing island state in the southwest Pacific Ocean, following the recent acquisition of the country’s first mammogram machine.

But just a week ahead of World Cancer Day, celebrated globally on Feb. 4, many say that the benefit of having advanced medical technology, in a country where mortality occurs in 59 percent of women diagnosed with cancer, depends on improving the serious knowledge deficit of the disease in the country.

“While cancer is included on the NCD [non-communicable diseases] list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness.” — Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji
“Breast cancer is a health issue that women are concerned about in the Solomon Islands, but adequate awareness of it among women is not really prioritised,” Bernadette Usua, who works for the local non-governmental organisation, Vois Blong Mere (Voice of Women), in the capital, Honiara, told IPS.

Rachel, a young 24-year-old woman living with her two children, aged three and five years, in one of the country’s many rural villages, did not know what breast cancer was when she detected a lump in her breast in August 2013.

But the lump grew larger prompting her to travel to Honiara several months later to see a doctor.

“She went to the central hospital and was advised to have her left breast removed, but due to the little knowledge that she and her husband had about what it would be like, both were afraid of the surgery,” Bernadette Usua, who is Rachel’s cousin, recounted.

“So they just left the hospital without any medication or other assistance, and went home,” she continued.

Rachel tried traditional medicine available in her village, but the cancer and pain became more aggressive. Usua remembers next seeing her cousin in July of last year.

“She was sitting on her bed night and day with extreme pain, unable to lie down and sleep. But she was still brave as she nursed herself, washed herself and cooked for her children. She cried and prayed until she passed away in September,” Usua recalled.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and in the Solomon Islands, where it accounted for 92 of more than 200 diagnosed cases in 2012. But its incidence in the developing world, where 50 percent of cases and 58 percent of fatalities occur, is rapidly rising.

Low survival rates of around 40 percent in low-income countries, compared to more than 80 percent in North America, are due mainly to late discovery of the disease in patients and limited diagnosis and treatment offered by under-resourced health centres.

Last year Annals of Global Health revealed that of 281 cancer cases identified in women in the Solomon Islands in 2012, 165 did not survive, while in Papua New Guinea and Fiji fatalities occurred in 2,889 of 4,457, and 418 of 795 diagnosed cases, respectively.

Insufficient public knowledge about the disease is an issue across the region.

“Currently public health education and promotion is focussing heavily on the control of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] as a whole. While cancer is included on the NCD list, very little attention and resources are specifically addressing women and breast cancer awareness,” said Dr. Sylvia Defensor, senior radiologist at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services in Fiji, a Pacific Island state home to over 880,000 people.

In the Solomon Islands, mammograms, or x-rays of the breast, will now be free to all female citizens who comprise about 49 percent of the population of more than 550,000. This is after installation of digital mammography equipment, funded by the national First Lady’s Charity, in Honiara’s National Referral Hospital.

Dr. Douglas Pikacha, general surgeon at the hospital, explained that mammograms were vital to early detection of breast disease and the saving of women’s lives through early treatment, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

Mammography is considered the most effective form of breast cancer screening by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with some evidence that it can reduce subsequent loss of life by an estimated 20 percent, especially in women aged 50-70 years.

But with more than 80 percent of the population residing in rural areas and spread over more than 900 different islands, Josephine Teakeni, president of Vois Blong Mere, is deeply concerned about the fate of many women who are located far from the main health facilities in the capital. An estimated 73 percent of doctors and all medical specialists in the country are based at the National Referral Hospital.

She says that reliable breast cancer screening and diagnosis is urgently needed in provincial hospitals if the mortality rate is to be reduced. Most patients must travel an average of 240 kilometres to reach the National Referral Hospital, commonly by ferry or motorised canoe, given the prohibitive expense of internal air services.

There is also a critical shortage of health care workers in the country with 0.21 doctors per 1,000 people and Teakeni claims that “while waiting for an operation the delay can result in full advancement of the cancer and death.”

However, there is a further challenge with almost half of all women diagnosed with breast cancer refusing a mastectomy, which involves the partial or entire surgical removal of affected breasts, even though it may result in the patient’s recovery, the Ministry of Health reports.

“Many prefer traditional treatment to mastectomy because they believe it is more womanly to have their breast than to live without it,” Pikacha said.

The high risk of cancer mortality is another factor impacting gender inequality in the Pacific Island state where entrenched cultural attitudes and widespread gender violence, experienced by 64 percent of women and girls, hinders improvement of their social and economic status.

Teakeni believes that an urgent priority is dramatically improving “awareness among women about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and even simple tests that women can do themselves, such as checking the breast for lumps while having a shower,” as well as the importance and impact of medical treatment.

Still, the installation of the new mammogram machine gives women on this island something, however small, to celebrate.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Zimbabwe Battles with Energy Poverty

Wood market in Chitungwiza. Twenty percent of the urban households in Zimbabwe do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs. Credit: Tonderayi Mukeredzi/IPS

Wood market in Chitungwiza. Twenty percent of the urban households in Zimbabwe do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs. Credit: Tonderayi Mukeredzi/IPS

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi
HARARE, Jan 27 2015 (IPS)

Janet Mutoriti (30), a mother of three from St Mary’s suburb in Chitungwiza, 25 kilometres outside Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, frequently risks arrest for straying into the nearby urban forests to fetch wood for cooking.

Despite living in the city, Janet’s is among the 20 percent of the urban households which do not have access to electricity, and rely mainly on firewood for their energy needs.

Worldwide, energy access has become a key determinant in improving people’s lives, mainly in rural communities where basic needs are met with difficulty.

In Zimbabwe, access to modern energy is very low, casting doubts on the country’s efforts at sustainable development, which energy experts say is not possible without sustainable energy.

In an interim national energy efficiency audit report for Zimbabwe issued in December, the Sustainable African Energy Consortium (SAEC) revealed that of the country’s slightly more than three million households, 44 percent are electrified.“In rural Zimbabwe, the economic driver is agriculture, both dry land and irrigated. The need for energy to improve productivity in rural areas cannot be over-emphasised but current power generated is not sufficient to support all the energy-demanding activities in the country” – Chiedza Mazaiwana, Practical Action Southern Africa

They consumed a total of 2.7 million GWh in 2012 and 2.8 million GWh in 2013, representing 34 percent of total electrical energy sales by the Zimbabwe Electricity Distribution Transmission Company.

According to SAEC, of the un-electrified households, 62% percent use wood as the main source of energy for cooking, especially in rural areas where 90 percent live without access to energy.

A significant chasm exists between urban and rural areas in their access to electricity. According to the 2012 National Energy Policy, 83 percent of households in urban areas have access to electricity compared with 13 percent in rural areas.

Rural communities meet 94 percent of their cooking energy requirements from traditional fuels, mainly firewood, while 20 percent of urban households use wood as the main cooking fuel. Coal, charcoal and liquefied petroleum gas are used by less than one percent.

Engineer Joshua Mashamba, chief executive of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) which is crusading the country’s rural electrification programme, told IPS that the rate of electrification of rural communities was a mere 10 percent.

“As of now, in the rural areas, there is energy poverty,” he said. “As the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), we have electrified 1,103 villages or group schemes and if we combine that with what other players have done, we are estimating that the rate of rural electrification is at 10 percent. It means that 90 percent remain un-electrified and do not have access to modern energy.”

Since the rural electrification programme started in the early 1980s, Mashamba says that 3,256 schools, 774 rural centres, 323 government extension offices, 266 chief’s homesteads and 98 business centres have also been electrified.

Zimbabwe Energy Council executive director Panganayi Sithole told IPS that modern energy services were crucial to human welfare, yet over 70 percent of the population remain trapped in energy poverty.

“The prevalence of energy of poverty in Zimbabwe cuts across both urban and rural areas. The situation is very dire in peri-urban areas due to deforestation and the non-availability of modern energy services,” said Sithole.

“Take Epworth [a poor suburb in Harare] for example. There are no forests to talk about and at the same time you cannot talk of the use of liquefied petrol gas (LPG) there due to costs and lack of knowledge. People there are using grass, plastics and animal dung to cook. It’s very sad,” he noted.

Sithole said there was a need to recognise energy poverty as a national challenge and priority, which all past and present ministers of energy have failed to do.

Zimbabwe currently faces a shortage of electrical energy owing to internal generation shortfalls and imports much its petroleum fuel and power at great cost to close the gap.

Demand continues to exceed supply, necessitating load shedding, and even those that have access to electricity regularly experience debilitating power outages, says Chiedza Mazaiwana, an energy project officer with Practical Action Southern Africa.

“In rural Zimbabwe, the economic driver is agriculture, both dry land and irrigated. The need for energy to improve productivity in rural areas cannot be over-emphasised but current power generated is not sufficient to support all the energy-demanding activities in the country. The percentage of people relying entirely on biomass for their energy is 70 percent,” she adds.

According to the World Bank, access to electricity in Southern Africa is around 28 percent – below the continental average of 31 percent. The bank says that inadequate electricity access poses a major constraint to the twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in the region.

To end the dearth of power, Zimbabwe has joined the global effort to eliminate energy poverty by 2030 under the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative.

The country has abundant renewable energy sources, most of which are yet to be fully utilised, and energy experts say that exploiting the critical sources of energy is key in closing the existing supply and demand gap while also accelerating access to green energy.

By 2018, Zimbabwe hopes to increase renewable energy capacity by 300 MW.

Mashamba noted that REA has installed 402 mini-grid solar systems at rural schools and health centres, 437 mobile solar systems and 19 biogas digesters at public institutions as a way to promote modern forms of energy.

A coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) led by Zero Regional Environment Organisation and Practical Action Southern Africa is calling for a rapid increase in investment in energy access, with government leading the way but supported in equal measure by official development assistance and private investors.

Though the current output from independent power producers (IPPs) is still minimal, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) says that contribution from IPPs will be significant once the big thermal producers come on stream by 2018.

At the end of 2013, the country had 25 power generation licensees and some of them have already started implementing power projects that are benefitting the national grid.

Notwithstanding the obvious financial and technical hitches, REA remains optimistic that it will deliver universal access to modern energy by 2030.

“By 2018, we intend to provide rural public institutions with at least one form of modern energy services,” said Mashamba. “In doing this, we hope to extend the electricity grid network to institutions which are currently within a 20 km radius of the existing grid network. Once we have electrified all public institutions our focus will shift towards rural homesteads.”

For CSOs, achieving universal access to energy by 2030 will require recognising the full range of people’s energy needs, not just at household level but also enterprise and community service levels.

“Currently there is a lot of effort put in to increasing our generation capacity through projects such as Kariba South Extension and Hwange extension which is good and highly commended but for us to reach out to the rural population (most affected by energy poverty, according to our statistics, we should also increase efforts around implementing off grid clean energy solutions to make a balance in our energy mix,” says Joseph Hwani, project manager for energy with Practical Action Southern Africa.

Practical Action says that on current trends, 1.5 billion people globally will still lack electricity in 2030, of whom 650 million will be in Africa.

This is some fifteen years after the target date for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which cannot be met without sustainable, affordable, accessible and reliable energy services.

Edited by Phil Harris