Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Cookstoves a Lethal Problem 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, November 14 / 10

Zack Gross

The United Nations continues to work toward reaching its Millennium Development Goals, originally set for 2015. 

In addressing poverty, disease and gender inequality, initiatives are being taken to solve a problem that is not well-recognized – inefficient cookstoves and indoor pollution.  Almost half the world’s population does not have clean energy with which to cook their meals and this causes more deaths per year than are attributed to malaria.

The smoke, soot and other particles that rise from indoor fires and stoves result in chronic breathing difficulties, especially for women and children who are in the kitchen most often.  Household pollution has been connected to lung cancer, heart disease and low birth weight in the children of affected women. 

Not only are the burnt wood, charcoal, peat, dung, crop residues and other biomass bad for people’s health, but the non-stop cutting and gathering of firewood has created an environmental crisis on our planet. 

Forests are being cut down for construction, mining, agriculture and other industries.  And, on top of that, most humans are burning whatever wood they can find to keep warm and fed.  Inefficient wood stoves also contribute greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, fueling climate change.

Finally, of course, women and children spend a large part of their days gathering firewood and other materials to burn for cooking.  This leaves them little time to focus on education, recreation and attaining economic and governance equality through their own revenue generation and community leadership. 

Competing for scarce firewood also puts women at risk of violence.

Many efforts have been made in the past to deal with household health and safety issues in traditional societies. 

A number of organizations globally have attempted to create models and prototypes that would meet people’s needs and support their health and that of the planet. 

For instance, seeing that many poor families kept their animals within their household compound, development workers set up model compounds to use as a teaching tool, with animals separated from people, and fire pits and wells set up in safe areas with barriers around to keep animals and children from falling in or drinking from the same source.

As well, development groups have come up with “appropriate” technology, such as efficient stoves that burn less wood and solar cookers that harness the heat of the sun in a tropical climate. 

As technologies have advanced, the benefits of the new stoves have been apparent.  However, interestingly, solar cookstoves have not always been popular in warm climates as people generally avoid the sun and heat of the day, and therefore do not want to be outside tending to a solar cooker!

Acceptance of the new cookstoves has, therefore, not always been easy. 

Even though some stoves piloted in Latin America cost as little as $8 and lasted three years, women rejected them because they felt the smoke kept insects away. 

In Asia, there was similar rejection because they feared repercussions from their husbands (that their cooking is not as good).  In East Africa, where almost all rural people use inefficient cookstoves, health education has encouraged them to move their stoves outside, but they are still negatively affecting the environment.

A “business model” is also needed to make the new, efficient cookstoves a successful venture. 

It is not necessarily a case of someone profiting from this new technology, but rather the need for creating a device that is practical and affordable, where there is a sustainable market and a lasting benefit. 

In its simplicity, a new generation of cookstoves could make as big an impact on donors and beneficiaries alike as mosquito bed nets have done in recent years, whether through business or through organizations such as UNICEF.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in New York in late September of this year. 

Attached to her proclamation was more than $60 million  in public and private money, with the goal of 100 million homes using safer stoves and fuels by 2020.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will spend $6 million over the next five years on testing stove designs.  Ultimately, the Alliance hopes to raise $250 million over the next five years. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), and Environmental Program (UNEP) are also on board. 

Mexico, India and Peru have had national programs to develop safe cookstoves, but this is the first global effort.

It seems like a small piece of the puzzle to deal with the cookstove issue. 

However, it is a key part of the solution, as every family everywhere uses fire or heat to prepare their meals.  Changing the way half the population makes breakfast, lunch and dinner can change the world!


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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