The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Energy for Whom? The Case of Coal

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on January 4, 2011

“Access to energy is fundamental to improving quality of life and is a key imperative for economic development.”

– Energy Poverty Action initiative, World Economic Forum

As the world’s demand for energy sources continues to rise, coal-rich developing countries are feeding the world’s demand. Of the 5 top hard coal energy producers in the world, 3 are major Asian countries – China, India and Indonesia.  However, it seems rather ironic that despite being rich in energy sources, a significant proportion of their populations still experience energy poverty issues, particularly in areas surrounding the coal producing regions. The Indonesian environmental group JATAM for instance has documented this in their latest publication, where low levels of development and electrification in towns and villages of coal producing regions have affected daily routines.

The issue of energy resource extraction also touches on sensitive issues related to the ownership of natural resources. Coal extraction projects have caused the displacement of local communities that have been dependent on the land and surrounding natural resources, such as the Dayak community in Kalimantan. These communities are left with few options of economic livelihoods, as they are oftentimes not skilled enough to take on jobs in the coal mines, which are often given to foreigners or people from other provinces. As a result, there is a tendency for friction as the local communities feel discriminated and oppressed in their own land, as seen in the case of the Uighur community in China’s Xinjiang province. For some communities, such as in India, they have resorted to stealing coal from the mines to sell or for their own domestic use. This thus situates them in a vicious cycle of poverty while faced with adverse health implications as a result of prolonged exposure to the coal mines.

Being denied access to such basic resources for livelihood can lead to conflict, especially when  external actors are involved. Such was the case in Bangladesh, where investments by US companies in a coal power plant in Phulbari had caused great resentment amongst locals who were constantly experiencing power shortages and gas rationing,  which in turn affected several industrial sectors in the country. This is just one of the many cases that reflect the dilemmas faced by governments in balancing the needs of its people with the need to cater to the demands of foreign investors for economic growth.

Although energy poverty issues will be difficult to address, there are nevertheless, ongoing  efforts to increase awareness of the issue – such as the Poor People’s Energy Outlook report – as well as initiatives to provide access to energy sources such small-scale rural electirication. Studies have also shown shone light on the gendered nuances related with energy poverty.

Securing a safe and stable supply of energy/electricity is a necessary step for the human security needs of individuals, whether it be coal, gas or renewable sources of energy. While many of us would deem a blackout as an inconvenience, to others it represents an impediment to better standards of livelihood.


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