How solar heaters can change lives

Saleem Shaikh
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For the past year, a steady stream of villagers has been visiting Muhammad Naeem’s home in this quaint mountain town in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

They come for one reason: to see for themselves the benefits of his solar water heater.

“A solar geyser does not cause respiratory diseases, it reduces the burden of firewood collection, and it gets rid of kerosene expenses,” the roadside shop owner, 35, tells curious visitors. “My wife no longer burns fuelwood to heat water for cooking, bathing, and washing dishes or laundry.”

At least one of Naeem’s visitors walks away convinced.

“I don’t think anyone could resist owning a solar water geyser himself,” fruit farmer Ali Akbar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It offers so many economic, health and environmental benefits.”

First introduced to Nathiagali six years ago, as part of an initiative by the World Wide Fund for Nature – Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan), roof-top solar water heaters are gaining popularity among the area’s villagers as a cheap, easy, and green alternative to wood and kerosene.

The heating systems comprise of a set of water-filled solar tubes, called collectors, connected to an insulated water tank above them.

The tubes absorb sunlight to heat the water inside them. As it heats, the water rises into the storage tank. At the same time, cooler water from the tank flows into the collectors to be heated, keeping hot water circulating through the system.

The units require no electricity to run, making them an affordable, convenient option for communities not on the power grid, experts say. Because they produce no smoke or fumes, solar heaters cut down on the respiratory illnesses associated with burning wood and kerosene.

And, crucially, the heating systems help conserve the trees in Nathiagali and three other towns surrounding Ayubia National Park, an area that is home to 4,000 families, most of whom rely on the local forests of oak, cedar and coniferous pine for fuel.

Saving Trees

The solar water heating technology first arrived to the towns around the park in 2009, as part of a $48,000 WWF-Pakistan Climate-Resilient Watershed Management Programme funded by the Coca Cola Foundation.

The aim of the project was to curtail deforestation in the area, where over 1,100 mature trees are cut down each year, local forest officials say.

According to Itzaz Mehfooz, a former sub-divisional forest officer, tree cutting has led to problems including soil erosion, landslides, and flash floods, particularly when torrential rains hit.

Forest conservationist and biologist Muhammad Waseem, who heads the organisation’s office in Nathiagali, said the effort started with 27 solar water heating systems installed in mosques and schools to demonstrate to local people the technology’s clean convenience.

“Those (initial) geysers saved seven mature pine trees from felling within one year of their installation,” Waseem told TRF. “For the project team, it was highly stunning result and a strong reason to upscale the initiative.”

According to Waseem, the 83 solar units now installed are together saving around 500 tons of fuelwood annually. If all of the households in the area around Ayubia National Park install solar water heaters about 23,000 tons of wood could be saved annually, he said.

Cost – And Benefits

Soon after the technology was introduced, “villagers started visiting our office to enquire about costs, health benefits, technical specifications, and the sustainability of these solar geysers,” Waseem said. “Soon we started seeing a rise in the number of clean energy geysers being installed by the villagers themselves.”

Azmat Khan, a wholesale solar heater dealer in Islamabad, says that while consumers might balk at the 47,000 rupees ($450) price tag of a solar water heating unit, it can ultimately be cheaper than using wood or kerosene.

“While solar water heaters do tend to be more expensive upfront, in the long run they can save you a great deal on your monthly energy costs,” he said.

According to Arif Alauddin, former head of Pakistan’s Alternative Energy Development Board, installing a solar water heater can cut household energy consumption by 40-50 percent.

But Khan sees the benefits of solar heaters reaching beyond the environment and energy bills. “Such initiatives can also improve livelihoods and enhance productivity,” he said, “because less time will be spent on fuelwood collection.”

Women will be the real beneficiaries, said farmer Taj Mohammad, 60, a vegetable farmer from Khun Kalan village in Nathiagali.

“We can no longer afford to send our women out to collect fuelwood from forests while keeping them deprived of such a wonderful technology,” he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author:  Saleem Shaikh is an Islamabad-based freelance writer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation with an interest in climate change. Sughra Tunio writes for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: Villagers gather near a solar water heat installed in Muhammad Naeem’s home in the mountain town of Nathiagali, about 80 km from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. TRF/Saleem Shaikh

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