Traditional Cookstoves and Tomorrow’s Environment

“The use of open fires and traditional cookstoves and fuels is one of the world’s most pressing health and environmental problems” says the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. It is estimated that globally, over three billion people, rely on and use solid fuels such as wood, coal and biomass for cooking purposes.

The vast majority of these people are poor and live in low-income or middle-income countries. Women and children are disproportionally affected as they spend the most time near the cooking hearth as well as in the preparation of food and collection of cooking fuels. They are described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “The forgotten 3 billion.”

Inefficient cooking appliances and methods, such as open fire pits, traditional and leaky stoves, result in high levels of indoor air pollution as the smoke from cooking is not properly trapped or ventilated. The pollution it results in contains a range of pollutants that are dangerous to a person’s health including small soot particles. The WHO claims that “In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles.” Since 2012 this has resulted in over 4.3 million deaths per year.

Over a third (34%) of these deaths have been attributed to strokes, 26% from ischaemic heart disease, 22% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 12% from pneumonia and 6% from lung cancer. National Geographic notes that air pollution generally accounts for “One in eight deaths across the globe, making air pollution the single greatest environmental health risk on Earth.” It adds that “What’s more shocking is that … more than half of those deaths are caused by indoor pollutants.”

In addition to directly causing deaths and health concerns, there is evidence that suggests the regular use of open pit fires and other inefficient appliances and stoves for cooking can also lead to other health concerns. Once inside a person’s body pollutants can inflame the airway and lungs, impair immune responses and reduce the capacity of blood to carry oxygen. Furthermore, the WHO also notes that “There is also evidence between household air pollution and low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.” There is also the risk of being physically burned or injured from coming into contact with these often-dangerous fires or cookstoves.

Air pollution created as a result of cooking from traditional and inefficient appliances also inhibits sustainable development and increases environmental risks. Often women and children are responsible for the gathering of fuels (such as wood pieces) and this limits their ability to pursue other productive activities and to generate income from these activities which could be used to improve their livelihoods. In addition, users of these technologies, generally lack access to reliable electricity networks which further limits their ability to avoid exposure to air pollution as well as to pursue other economic, educational, health or development opportunities.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this major environmental and health development challenge. It will require a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach. The WHO is actively “Building capacity at the country and regional level to address household air pollution with workshops and the development of tools to help design, implement and monitor policies addressing household energy.” Their activities include producing new indoor air pollution guidelines for household fuel combustion, establishing and compiling a household energy database to monitor global progress in the transition to cleaner fuels and cookstoves, conducting research and program evaluation activities and, finally, providing leadership and advocacy in the health, energy and climate community.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is also working to actively address these major challenges. Launched in September 2010, they are largely focused on the supply-side of the market as they work towards fostering the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels in 100 million households by 2020. Says their website, “The Alliance and its partners are working to establish a thriving global market for clean cooking solutions by addressing the market barriers that impede the production, deployment, and use of clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels in developing countries.”


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on November 14, 2017.


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