Issues Resulting From Energy Practices in Informal Settlements

Despite the country being ranked sixth in the world for producing hard coal, a majority of the population in the informal settlements of South Africa cannot afford to use the electricity the country produces (Department, 2006). When electricity is not used, other less safe sources are used, the most common being paraffin, candles, and firewood. The uses of energy sources in low income households in Cape Town are depicted below in the figure. Based on HESASA’s research, the figure illustrates that traditional energy practices are commonly used in the houses regardless of electrical connection (“Household Energy Sources Fact Sheet,” 2012). Given the varied nature of energy sources, communities struggle to secure safe and dependable sources of energy.

Use of Energy Sources in Low-Income Households in Cape Town

Use of Energy Sources in Low-Income Households in Cape Town (“Household Energy Sources Fact Sheet,” 2012)

Dangers of Shack Fires

Shack fire related deaths affect one out of every seven people in the world today physically, mentally, or socially (Raphela, 2011). In South Africa, the heart of this problem is poverty. Shack fires usually happen in informal settlements, where most houses are built with extremely flammable and conductive materials, including iron sheets, wood planks, or bamboo. This problem is exacerbated by the common use of paraffin for cooking fuel and prominent use of candles, which causes about 45% of fires in the informal settlement context (“Household Energy Sources Fact Sheet,” 2012). It takes less than one minute to burn down a house (Town, 2014). Since the distance between homes is small, the whole neighborhood can catch on fire very rapidly. Around 4,000 shack fire incidents occur in informal settlements in South Africa every year (“Fire Statistics of South Africa,” 2014). Although the government provides emergency supplies on hand to help the affected people, there are many lasting effects unmitigated by the local emergency services.

On New Year’s Day in 2013, Khayelitsha, the largest informal settlement in Cape Town, caught on fire. In one hour, five people died and over 4,000 people lost their homes (IRIN, 2013). According to the South African National Fire Department’s statistics, shown in the figure below, in 2011 there were 4,046 fires in informal settlements. This number rose to 4,516 in 2012 (“Fire Statistics of South Africa,” 2014). The most vulnerable people are women and children. Compared to men, women spend most of their time doing housework, including cooking on open fires.

Annual Fire Deaths in South Africa, 2000-2011 (Adapted from “Fire Statistics of South Africa,” 2013)

Annual Fire Deaths in South Africa, 2000-2011 (Adapted from “Fire Statistics of South Africa,” 2013)

Health Effects of Energy Practices

Many cheap energy sources have serious health implications. The leading health issues come from paraffin lamps and stoves, the smoke of which can cause respiratory infections and lung cancer. The dangers of paraffin fumes are compounded by their use in informal settlements. The poorly ventilated shacks are small, which causes the toxic fumes to accumulate. According to the World Bank, over 750 million women and children inhale paraffin fumes equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day (RPC, 2011). This is a major contributor to female lung cancer cases; in developing nations 65% of adult female lung cancer victims do not smoke (RPC, 2011). This highlights how dangerous the constant use of paraffin lamps and stoves can be.

Although South Africa’s annual paraffin use has been decreasing for the past 15 years, 83% of non-electrified households and 31% of electrified households still use paraffin (Walsh, Wesselink, & Janisch, 2011). The fumes from paraffin cause indoor air pollution problems, which are exacerbated by insulation. The easiest method to insulate a shack is to block the flow of air both inside and outside. Although this is vital when heating a room, the lack of airflow greatly increases the danger of airborne pollutants. When the airflow is restricted, airborne pathogens and toxic fumes accumulate rapidly. The United States has a $77 billion industry dedicated to ensuring buildings have safe heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (IBIS, 2014); informal settlements in Cape Town do not have this ability. Although insulation is important, it increases the dangers of indoor air pollutants.

Not only are the fumes dangerous, consuming paraffin is highly toxic. Children are at a high risk for paraffin poisoning since they are likely to accidentally ingest it. The World Health Organization found that 75% of households in South Africa kept paraffin within easy reach of children (Organization, 2004). This is very dangerous for young children, as consuming paraffin can be fatal if not treated quickly. Paraffin has the same appearance and consistency as water, adding to the risk of child consumption. In fact, it is the leading cause of childhood food poisoning: the WHO estimates that 16,000 children are hospitalized each year due to consuming paraffin (Organization, 2004). Furthermore, many South Africans are exposed to paraffin starting at a young age; chronic exposure can affect the central nervous system causing: irritability, restlessness, ataxia, drowsiness, convulsions, coma, and death (Chilcott, 2006). Health is one of the issues major caused by current energy sources.

Social Issues Caused by Energy Practices in South Africa

South Africa, especially Cape Town, has an extremely high crime rate. Over 130 out of 100,000 South African citizens reported that they had been raped in 2010 (NationMaster, 2013). Cape Town was ranked as the 34th most violent city in the world in 2011, with 46 murders per 100,000 residents. Furthermore, violence is higher in informal settlements than wealthier areas (Barnes, 2012). Although most crime is not directly related to energy or energy products, the application of energy products can reduce crime rates. Adequate lighting at night has been shown to reduce violence. In areas of the United Kingdom where streetlights were introduced, crime rates reduced by 38% (Welsh & Farrington, 2008). Informal settlements without effective lighting will generally have a higher crime rate than those with adequate lighting.

Lighting also increases the academic performance of students. A project conducted by students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute found that increasing a student’s access to light increases the chance that they will stay in school, improve their test grades, and have higher graduation rates (Konicki, Korpacz, Russell, & Yilmaz, 2014). On the other hand, high lighting costs deter students from studying at night, and dangerous sources of light negatively affect their health if they choose to use them. Increased violence and limited access to light to study are two of the major issues perpetuated by energy practices in informal settlements.

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