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Something's cooking

Satinder Bindra
Director, UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information

Growing up in India, one of my earliest childhood memories was watching my grandmother by the smoky 'chulha' - the three-sided rudimentary clay stove, that still serves as the hearth in millions of rural South Asian homes. Not that I stayed there long: all the smoke and soot the inefficient stove produced ensured I never spent more than the odd minute in my grandmother's kitchen.

This picture from my past is still today's reality across South Asia and large tracts of the developing world. Approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity and some 3 billion still use inefficient stoves that rely on traditional biomass fuels such as firewood, crop residues and dung for cooking.

The stove's inefficiencies occur at many levels. Their mud bodies are poor insulators, and so devour more fuel than necessary. And the volume of air cannot be controlled: too little produces thick smoke; too much cools the flames. This places a big social burden on the shoulders of women and endangers their - and their children's - health. Again, I can still vividly recall my grandmother's average day, much of it spent fretting over her fuel supply. She depended on cow dung that had to be painstakingly gathered, then mixed with hay and dried into small pizza-shaped patties. In a sense she was lucky: in parts of South Asia women have to collect firewood from distant jungles and are regularly at risk of being molested, hurt and injured when they leave the safety of their homes.

Women in Nepal's hills, for example, spend almost 2.5 hours per day collecting fodder, grass and firewood. Deforestation means they have to go further afield, increasing their burden by almost 1.1 hours a day, giving them less time to devote to agriculture, raising their children or earning income.

The relentless search for fuel puts enormous pressure on forests: many of India's 700 million people collect their wood from them Deforestation in neighbouring Pakistan is among the highest in the world: many activists believe it was a critical factor in aggravating 2009's devastating floods, which killed nearly 2,000 people, displaced almost 18 million and caused billions of dollars in damage.

The inefficient stoves' emissions of soot, black carbon particles, is even more devastating. The World Health Organization estimates household exposure to it causes 1.6 million premature deaths per year, predominantly in women and children. Studies in India show that women who have cooked on biomass stoves for years exhibit a higher prevalence of chronic lung disease than those who have not. Black carbon also causes or compounds pneumonia, bronchitis, cataracts, heart disease, high blood pressure and low birth weight.

And the effect of the chulhas goes beyond hearth and home. As the smoke escapes outdoors - and undergoes chemical transformations in the presence of sunlight - it forms Atmospheric Brown Clouds (ABCs) of particles and ozone gas. In Asia alone, the particles in ABCs can lead to an additional 500,000 deaths annually, while the ozone causes billions of dollars of crop damage.

Black carbon also produces between 10 to 40 per cent of global warming, as the particles warm the air like tiny heat-absorbing black sweaters. And when they settle on snow and ice they darken it, causing it to melt much faster.

But change is under way. Much more efficient stoves are being developed. A recent World Bank study in Rwanda shows that - at a cost of just a few extra dollars - they can cut charcoal use from 0.51 kg to 0.33 kg per person per day: in a year a family could save about US$84 in fuel costs - a substantial amount when average annual incomes in eastern and central African countries are only US$300 to US$370.

In India - host to this year's World Environment Day celebrations - UNEP has been involved in an exciting project called ``Surya''(Sunlight), which is providing a rural area of approximately 100 square kilometres and 50,000 people with cleaner cookstoves. It will document the impact on air quality, climate, and health, using mobile phones and advanced NASA technology - and plans to use this data to try to obtain carbon credit offsets to help spread the use of the stoves.

Last September, UNEP joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The US Government has provided US$50 million in seed money for the project, which hopes to provide 100 million clean burning stoves to villages in Africa, Asia and South America by 2020.

A study published in The Lancet indicates that a ten-year program to introduce 150 million low emission stoves in India alone could prevent about two million premature deaths. And UNEP field studies show that reducing the emissions of just one ton of black carbon can slow global warming as much as cutting 250 to 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Unlike carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for many years, soot falls out in just a few weeks.

Improving cookstoves must now become public policy. Millions of cleaner stoves have been distributed free in India over the past 20 years through government-led campaigns but limited information on their benefits has left many unused. Institutionalizing the switch to green chulhas must become a national priority, through a public awareness campaign that highlights health safety, air quality, climate change mitigation and ultimately the creation of a Green Economy and overall economic development for rural populations in India and around the world.

My grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 97 and - while she bucked the trend by not developing any lung disease - her life around the hearth left her with a bad back. Now Indian women, the custodians of the chulha, have a chance both to improve their lives and the state of the world as a whole.

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