Nearly two million people die prematurely each and every year due to indoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (Full text (PDF)), virtually all in low and middle income countries. In terms of perhaps a more useful estimate of the damage caused – “disability-adjusted life years”, it’s roughly two-thirds as signficant as water, sanitation and hygiene. Most of the pollution comes from burning biomass – wood, or even worse, dung – in cooking stoves. And – you guessed it – it disproportionately affects women.
On top of that, collecting fuel for these stoves is time-consuming – taking people, mainly women, away from other activities. The deforestation for fuel obviously contributes to CO2 levels, and when smoke escapes into the wider atmosphere it contributes to global warming through black carbon.
So it’s good to see Hillary Clinton launching (and committing 50 million dollars of American funding to) the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The Alliance’s goals are summarized below:
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves envisions a world in which clean cookstoves and fuels erase this unnecessary loss of life. To jumpstart progress towards that ultimate goal, the Alliance is targeting the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels by 100 million households by 2020. The Alliance will target the key barriers to the development of a robust commercial market for stoves including common standards, supply chain development, strong stove performance monitoring and evaluation, and consumer awareness.
The risks and costs of inefficient, dirty cooking stoves have been known for a long time. I can’t dig up a reference, but I seem to recall reading that in the late nineteeth century a campaign, mostly led by women, saw the development and widespread deployment of clean (or, at least, flued) stoves and heaters throughout the industrial world. But bringing such developments to the developing world will be challenging.
Some perspective on the issue can be found in this article by several Indian academics on an Indian program with complementary aims.
The first is that the issue is in large part one facing the rural poor. Like many of the most acute health issues facing the developing world, simply being richer will ameliorate many of them. But completely eliminating general rural poverty remains a long-term project – getting safer, more efficient stoves to the poor is something that can be done in the meantime.
The second is that while cleaner stoves have many potential benefits beyond cleaner indoor air – for one thing, they can potentially pay for themselves very quickly by freeing up time spent gathering fuel for more productive activities, many previous efforts at improving the efficiency and cleanliness of cooking stoves have failed. For instance, one idea that comes up repeatedly in this context is using solar cookers. Unfortunately, nobody uses them. As this interview with a proponent explains:
The type of food cooked is one on the main cultural issues; our food requires cooking, frying and all these can not be done with one single type of cooker.
Of course, Parabolic cooker or Scheffler’s can perform all tasks, but they are costly. In fact in Andhra, some villages are depending on Parabolic type of solar cookers for preparing tit bits for selling in the local market.
Cooking outside in the sun is not popular and in summer it would be difficult.
Most of the families, including farmers and daily laborers, prefer to cook food early in the morning, so that the members can carry food to work, and this is not possible with solar cookers. Besides eating food cooked previous day is still a taboo in villages as well.
Another important issue is the failure of solar cooker due to cloudy weather. Even if this happens on a single day, it is a big deterrent.
These were some of the cultural issues I faced some 30 years ago when I had launched solar cooker campaign. They still linger as it is very difficult to get over old habits and customs.
The global alliance, at this stage, hasn’t yet got a lot of material on their website about how they mean to tackle these issues beyond a focus on assisting the private sector rather than direct action. This should, in theory, help – if people are trying to make a quid out of selling these stoves to consumers, they’ll need to meet customer preferences if they want to stay in business. You can also make a cheap shot at the difference between the scale of the problem and the scale of the response – the $50 million in seed money constitutes roughly one quarter of the daily spend on the US military deployment to Afghanistan.
But it’s a start. Let’s hope that this effort actually goes somewhere.
UPDATE: If you’re interested in the kind of technologies that might be applied, have a look at the Ashden Awards, particularly their report on some of the issues, including barriers to adoption. Hat tip to Ken Lovell in comments.
More update: dk.au points to a post on Aidwatch which also discusses some of these issues – notably, the importance of user-centered design and good marketing.