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Press Release 00/01


Rome, 17 January - The massive energy problems of rural areas need to be given much higher priority, according to a joint report of the World Energy Council and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Hopes that improvement in energy supply would 'trickle down' from the more advanced sectors of the economy to the rural poor have not been realized, FAO said in a statement released today. "Rural energy development must be decentralized, to place rural people at the heart of planning and implementation."

The report, The Challenge of Rural Energy Poverty in Developing Countries, noted that more than three billion people live in rural areas around the world, nearly 90 percent of them in the developing countries. The vast majority are overwhelmingly dependent on burning wood, dung and crop residue to provide energy for cooking, heating and light, often using inefficient technologies. In the poorest rural households, the amount of energy consumed is less than what is needed for a minimum standard of living.

According to the report, at least half of gross energy consumption in most developing countries occurs in rural areas, with households as the major energy consumers. Cooking - often essential to make staple foods edible - dominates rural energy consumption. Very little is used for agricultural and food production. The dependence on biomass fuels often means long hours spent on collecting wood or other material as well as pressure on the environment and levels of indoor pollution that rival that of most polluted cities. These burdens fall largely on women and children.

The report estimates that the equivalent of about 7 percent of the world's electricity production today could meet the basic human needs of rural people in developing countries. "In an age of apparently advanced technological and management skills, we have failed in this relatively modest challenge."

Only 33 percent of the rural population in developing countries today have access to electricity. Although globally the number of rural households with access to electricity doubled from 610 million in 1970 to 1.4 billion in 1990, this increase barely kept pace with population growth. The absolute number of people without access to electricity declined from two billion in 1970 to only 1,8 billion in 1990. Impressive progress was achieved though in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Zimbabwe and Costa Rica.

In the past, the costs of electrification were underestimated while its benefits were overstated, the report stated. "By itself, electrification does not guarantee economic development and its benefits tend to accrue to the wealthier groups in electrified areas. Electrification must be part of a much broader development package," the report stressed.

Dependence on traditional fuels and biomass will continue for the foreseeable future in many rural areas, given its level of over 95 percent in some countries, the report stated. But improvements can be made, and the place to begin with is with existing indigenous technical knowledge and well-tested methods. Rural women will be key-players, because "they are the 'experts' most familiar with the household fuel supply problem and the needs of their families. They know their own cooking needs, habits, utensils, environmental conditions and their families' taste preferences."

Technologies like wind, solar, hydro and biomass offer potential to improve energy supply in rural areas. Many developing countries potentially have the opportunity to leapfrog from unsustainable biomass combustion to the use of renewable energy without relying on fossil fuel technology.

Biomass gasifiers could generate electricity and provide process heat. Biogas digesters could be used for water pumping and electricity. Solar photovoltaic systems are useful to pump water, operate vaccine refrigerators, for electric fences and communications. However, the report says, most efforts to promote alternative energy sources for agricultural activities in developing countries have failed. "Many such technologies have been found too costly, prone to failure and difficult for local people to install and operate." In many developing countries, poor repair and maintenance services are amongst the most severe barriers to adopting these technologies.

The report called on governments to better promote renewable and sustainable energy technologies in rural areas. Affordable rural credits could help farmers to increase income by switching from inefficient and costly energy to more efficient, less expensive energy and healthier systems.


The World Energy Council is a global multi-energy organization with committees and activities in approximately 100 countries, including most of the largest energy producing and consuming countries in the world.

For more information please contact Erwin Northoff, 0039-06-5705 3105, e-mail: Erwin.Northoff@FAO.Org

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