SEATTLE, Washington — While cooking methods vary from culture to culture or region to region, some methods are empirically safer for people than others. Clean cooking refers to the methods by which people cook. A modern stove, for example, is a clean source of energy — a method that does not present a real risk to the user’s health. A coal fire, though, produces a lot of harmful pollutants. The emissions from a wood or coal stove, the primary method of cooking for about 40% of people worldwide, can cause indoor air pollution, which presents a major health risk.
Cooking and the Poor
For those in poverty, clean cooking can seem like something that is out of reach due to the cost of switching from a traditional stove or open flame to a modern gas stove. But, they are also the ones most at risk of the negative effects of traditional cooking. The poor are disproportionately affected by the harmful effects of traditional cooking, such as lung disease and even death because they often can not afford the healthier alternatives. Traditional cooking methods also perpetuate the cycle of poverty because they stifle economic development and education by forcing family members to spend hours collecting fuel instead of working. Women and girls who have to walk five hours to collect firewood do not have time to go to work or school, which reduces their earning potential and means they are less likely to be able to elevate themselves out of poverty.
Clean Cooking Worldwide: The Numbers
Three billion people worldwide lack access to clean cooking methods. Most live in rural areas of developing countries and are some of the world’s poorest. The International community has deprioritized its investment in addressing access to clean cooking methods. In 2019, it was estimated that funding for clean cooking had fallen by 73%, from $120 million to $32 million. The State of Access to Modern Energy Cooking Services report states that $150 billion is needed each year until 2030 to eliminate this global problem.
Indoor air pollution, a harmful byproduct of traditional cooking methods, causes four million deaths a year. Most of these deaths come from cancers, heart or lung disease and burns. Half of the victims are children under 5 years old. The risk of injury is also significant due to the open flame involved in the cooking process and the amount of smoke produced.
Every eight seconds, someone dies because of indoor air pollution. Respiratory disease caused by indoor air pollution is the fourth greatest cause of death in the world, behind cancer, heart diseases (which can also be exacerbated by indoor air pollution) and accidents. Women are disproportionately represented among these deaths because of their traditional role in the domestic sphere increasing their exposure to indoor air pollution.
The lack of access to clean cooking methods costs the world more than $2.4 trillion every year. This number includes the cost of health issues related to indoor air pollution and the loss of productivity by those who have to gather fuel or those who fall ill because of the air quality. Women bear the brunt of this cost, as they are the ones who face the most exposure and lose the most time to cooking.
A whole 72% of NGOs working to implement clean cooking methods of 124 surveyed, reported severe disruptions in the efforts due to the coronavirus pandemic. About 19% of these NGOs have ceased operations since the survey. Not only does COVID-19 present a higher risk to those suffering from the respiratory effects of traditional cooking methods but the various shutdowns around the world have made it so that aid workers are unable to get into households and install modern cooking technology. It has also become harder for NGOs to secure funding for their aid work because of the impact of the pandemic on the economy.
Efforts Toward Clean Cooking
The damage caused by unclean cooking is dire but not insurmountable. There are solutions already being implemented to ameliorate this issue. The World Bank currently has committed $350 million in clean cooking projects across 21 different countries, helping around 18 million people access clean cooking methods. The World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program has recently established a $500 million Clean Cooking Fund with contributions from the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom to establish a global response to this issue. In Bangladesh, where 107,000 people die from indoor air pollution annually, it has already distributed 1.7 million of a planned four million improved stoves to those who need them since 2013.
Another NGO, World Central Kitchen, has worked with local partners in Haiti to transform more than 140 kitchens in schools so that neither children nor cafeteria workers get sick while cooking. This has helped more than 65,000 people in the country. Its work to implement clean cooking methods is expanding into the rest of the Caribbean and Central America.
What is Left to Do?
The U.N. has cited clean cooking as a necessity to further achievements in 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals, including ending poverty in all its forms worldwide. Not only would it improve global health but it would decrease gender inequality by reducing the amount of unpaid fuel gathering that women and girls have to do, improve food security for impoverished families by reducing the amount of fuel needed to cook and save money that can be used to buy food and promote economic growth by opening up jobs in the clean cooking sector.
Funding for and awareness of clean cooking needs to be increased around the world in order to solve this problem. NGOs like the World Bank and World Central Kitchen have started the process but governments and private enterprises need to join in to help the four billion people who are still in danger because of unsafe cooking methods.
– Brooklyn Quallen