Improving cookstoves will help save lives - and the planet

Touch of salt needed, I think. Heng Sinith/AP

Around three billion people in the world, largely in developing countries, rely on fuels like wood and charcoal for cooking and heating in the home. But burning these biomass fuels, not least in confined areas indoors, is bad for their health and also bad for the health of the planet.

This week a World Bank study indicated how simple measures could reduce pollution from cooking stoves. Not only would this save a million lives a year but it could also help to reduce global warming. One of the chemical components of soot from burning wood and fossil fuels is black carbon, recognised as one of the principal agents of global warming which especially affects the polar regions.

A range of governments, public-private institutions, multinational companies, and NGOs are trying to address this issue. Most proposed solutions involve manufacturing and selling more efficient stoves in developing countries. This would do wonders for the health of those using them and, by extracting energy from the fuel more efficiently, would be more environmentally sustainable too.

Solving very practical and everyday issues such as improving the design of kitchen and cooking equipment in developing countries could lead to the achievement of greater targets, such as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

Using open fires and rudimentary stoves generates a significant quantity of smoke and soot, or particulate matter, creates a serious health hazard, especially to women and children. The amount of biomass required solely for cooking fuel can reach up to two tonnes per family per year.

As they usually take up the duty of cooking for the family, women are most affected by the harmful effects of wood-burning stoves, so special efforts to increase education should be aimed at them. Just gathering wood, especially in areas where it is scarce, can be the single most time-consuming aspect of a woman’s day. Guaranteeing access to education to women could potentially have far greater beneficial effects by tackling the issue of gender inequality in many developing countries.

Exposure to smoke is associated with diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia, and the evidence shows that using outdated cookstoves clearly increases the rate of morbidity and mortality in developing countries. Worldwide, it is responsible for nearly four million deaths. So improving this would have a significant beneficial impact on the quality of people’s lives.

Children are also strongly affected because of their developing bodies and the fact they spend more time in the kitchen with their mothers. The consequences of exposure to smoke can be low birth weight or stillbirth in pregnant woman, just as with the effects of smoking tobacco.

So to cut indoor air pollution, the most important steps are to ensure kitchens are well ventilated and use fuels with less harmful emissions. This will require improved kitchen designs.

The World Bank supports the idea of improved biomass-burning cookstoves backed by the private sector. However, we wanted to find out whether the citizens of developing countries really need to rely on foreign aid and corporations to tackle this issue. Couldn’t they help themselves, using their own traditional skills and ethno-environmental knowledge, together with better education?

In our studies in Pakistan, our measurements of particulate matter revealed how smoke concentrations vary. Just cooking outdoors during the summer substantially reduced particulate matter – at one site this resulted in a halving of PM10 particulate matter concentrations (that of 10 micrometres or less, a tenth the width of a human hair). This research shows that those interventions which focus on improving the design of cooking spaces and stoves will bring environmental benefits.

One possible solution to the problem lies in drawing on the traditional environmental knowledge of those in the developing world to design their own sustainable environmental solutions. During our research in Pakistan we found that key steps were to use simple technologies, provide easier access to materials and resources and involve local communities. Structured like this, interventions should be more widely accepted by communities for recognising the economic restrictions and social norms that are limiting factors.