Tuesday 26 March 2013

Deadly fire: illuminating disadvantage and killing more people than malaria annually

At first, I didn’t take the problem seriously. I was contacted by a colleague who works with international charities, asking me if I knew about the dangers of fire. They were obvious, I thought. But then she told me about the issue of smoke inhalation from poorly ventilated homes, writing, “the latter is a very under-reported issue that has a big impact both on women's health and also on women's independence. Women are forced to stay in their homes all day watching the fire - breathing in smoke and trapped at home unable to go out, go to school, go out to work etc. It's so important to make the connections between poverty, health and the lack of women's economic independence. All too often those links aren't made and it is as though the problems just spring from no where or are inevitable when in fact they are almost always connected to gender inequality. 

Image (c) Practical Action
As I explored the campaign, Killer in the Kitchen, I began to see how this issue, which at first seemed simple, was actually an original way of seeing how a health issue reflects various underlying and interrelated challenges to do with poverty, health, development and gendered inequality. This issue is where a matrix of social, financial and economic values comes together to create and maintain inequality and disadvantage.

The health risks of smoke inhalation affect women disproportionate because of their exploited, subordinated and labour-exploited status. There is the expectation that food preparation, food serving and all additional domestic labour including cleaning and all childcare are a woman’s duty. There is the expectation that this labour, despite its hard, perpetual, repetitive and unrelenting requirements, is not worth payment or respect. There is the fact that the sheer amount of free labour demanded of women is so great that their ‘duties’ prevent them from studying or self-teaching or pursuing other work outside the house. There is the wider issue of absence of resources, which mean that alternative means of heating and cooking, different methods of building and ventilation and alternative technologies cannot be employed as there is no money to pay for them.

  • Each year the smoke from indoor cooking fires kills more people than malaria. Almost 2 million lives lost, needlessly.
  • Half the deaths from pneumonia of children under five are attributed to indoor air pollution.
  • Indoor air pollution is the biggest child killer in Nepal. Click here for more information.
  • Over 1 million people die each year from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), again attributed to exposure to indoor air pollution 
Practical Action, Killer in the Kitchen campaign. 

The figures, provided by the World Health Organisation, who have produced an extensive report, are shocking. More than three billion people - half the world's population, and its poorest – use simple stoves or three-stone fires to burn fuels such as wood, crop waste, dung and coal for cooking, boiling water and heating. Every year, nearly two million people die, usually from respiratory infections, as a result of inhaling the pollutants in the smoke produced when burning the lowest grades of fuel. Thus those who are already disadvantaged by poverty and therefore have the least access to the ‘clean’ energy provided by higher grade fuel are at risk from the by-products of the lower grade fuel they must use. The majority of victims are women and children under five.

Practical Action has created film footage showing model Gisele B√ľndchen’s visit to explore the issue in western Kenya and consider the use of waste as a resource – click here to see more. Looking at the wider geographical picture there are certain general actions that can be taken, with the proper investment and support, to implement the use of sustainable and clean energy and develop appropriate and inexpensive cooking and heating technologies that liberate their users (mainly women) both from the labour duties required and the health risks incurred. Both these factors have the potential to challenge what is expected of women, create time in women’s days, lift families out of ‘energy poverty’ and transform women’s own physical health and mental potential and those of their children. 

The methods suggested for combating the problem are cheap and relatively easy: the use of better stoves which reduce the amount of firewood used in a traditional fire by two thirds; sheet metal hoods which channel smoke out of the house and reduce indoor smoke levels by up to 80%; fireless cookers which use stored heat to cook food over a long period of time, saving fuel and reducing smoke.

If we look at case studies in Nepal, Kenya and Sudan we see that these simple measures have had extremely positive results. Happily, there is some evidence of solid political will behind the issue: the Nepali government aims to make all homes in Nepal smoke-free by 2017 and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has pledged to provide 100 million clean-burning stoves to settlements in rural Africa, Asia and South America by 2020.

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She is reporting on issues of global health and development.