Clean stoves can save women's lives in Asia, Africa (Feature)
By Anindita Ramaswamy Sep 22, 2010, 0:51 GMT
New York - Every day millions of women in Asia, Africa and Latin America spend hours hunched over smoke-spewing stoves in poorly ventilated homes with walls layered with thick soot. But cooking the food that will nourish and comfort their families is proving fatal for these mothers.
Every year an estimated 2 million women, and the babies strapped to their backs or the children who sit by them as they cook, die from inhaling the toxic smoke. That's close to one death every 16 seconds, health experts say.
The smoke contributes to a wide range of chronic illnesses such as pneumonia, the number one killer of children worldwide; emphysema; lung cancer; bronchitis; cardiovascular disease and low birth weight.
The staggeringly high number of deaths related to smoke inhalation is a little-discussed statistic at a summit where maternal and child health has generated a lot of attention, and targets met and missed are being carefully calibrated.
Many of the discussions at the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) special session at the United Nations have focused on maternal mortality rates globally - one of the eight goals is to reduce by three-quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio and achieve universal access to reproductive health.
But when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks about clean-burning cooking stoves, the world sits up and takes notice.
On Tuesday, an initiative for such stoves in the developing world was announced by Clinton, who has been a powerful advocate for improving women's health all over the world.
An estimated three billion people - or nearly half the world's population - are affected by stoves that are fuelled by coal, wood, agricultural waste and dung. The goal of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, announced by Clinton, is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates stove smoke to be the fourth-worst health risk in developing nations, following dirty water and lack of sanitation, unsafe sex and poor nutrition.
Clinton made the announcement at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the philanthropic organization of her husband, former US president Bill Clinton.
'People have cooked over open fires and dirty stoves for all of human history, but the simple fact is they are slowly killing millions of people and polluting the environment,' Clinton said.
'But today, because of technological breakthroughs, new carbon financing tools, and growing private sector engagement, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world - stoves that still cost as little as 25 dollars.'
The United States has committed 50.82 million dollars over the next five years towards this private-public partnership, whose collaborators range from the US State Department, Energy Department and Centres for Disease Control to the UN Foundation, WHO and the governments of Germany, Peru and Norway.
The dependence on such fuels is both a cause and a result of poverty, WHO says, as poor households often do not have the resources to obtain cleaner, more efficient fuels and appliances.
The Environmental Protection Agency is to lead cookstove design innovations and conduct stove tests in the laboratory and field.
'By upgrading these dirty stoves, millions of lives could be saved and improved. Clean stoves could be as transformative as bed nets or vaccines,' Clinton said.
The National Institutes of Health will accelerate its research on the cookstove-related effects on lung and heart diseases and the relationship between indoor air pollution and low birth weight.
There are other, well-documented effects of the reliance on biomass for cooking - it increases pressure on natural resources and as these dwindle it forces women and children to spend hours collecting firewood, which becomes an especially dangerous task for women and girls in refugee camps and conflict zones, putting them at increased risk of sexual assault.
The smoke is also harmful for the environment as it contributes to climate change by producing harmful greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, and aerosols such as black carbon.
The initiative will also contribute towards reducing deforestation in the developing world by curbing the massive quantities of wood and other biomass used to make charcoal.
Efficient cook stoves will have both health and climate benefits, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme.
'Inefficient cooking stoves are estimated to be responsible for approximately 25 per cent of emissions of black carbon, particles often known as soot, of which 40 per cent is linked to wood burning,' he said.
'Black carbon could now be responsible for a significant level of current climate change,' according to UNEP research.