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close this bookBoiling Point No. 27 - April 1992 (ITDG - ITDG, 1992, 40 p.)
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Less Fuel for Food

Editorial summary of a paper entitled "Nutritional Impacts of an Increasing Fuelwood Shortage in Rural Households in Developing Countries". By I D Brouwer, L M Nederveen, A P den Hartog and A H C Vlasveld and published in "Progress in Food and Nutrition Science", Vol. 13 pp. 349-361, 1989.

Brouwer et al. point out in their 1989 research report that the presence of several confounding variables renders generalisations about the impact of fuelwood scarcity on nutrition somewhat elusive. Even so, they sunrise that there are three main coping strategies employed by women facing acute fuelwood shortages: 1) increasing time and energy spent on fuelwood collection; 2) substituting fuelwood with alternative fuels; and 3) economising on the consumption of fuelwood and alternative fuels. They argue that 'these coping strategies affect food supply, food preservation, preparation and distribution, income generating activities and food consumption, all of which results in a decrease in quality and quantity of food consumed and in a deterioration of physical condition', especially affecting women and young children. The three main strategies for conserving fuel can have the following impacts:

1. increasing the amount of time and energy spent by women on fuelwood collection means that less time is available for food production, income generating activities and childcare, to the detriment of the health and nutrition of household members and particularly of children. For example, children's access to health care usually depends on the mother's ability to spend at least half a day traveling to and from the health centre and in waiting time. Increased workload leads to lower levels of food production, and so to a de crease in the consumption of vegetables, and probably less breast milk production in lactating women.

2. substituting fuelwood with alternative fuels, especially animal dung, agricultural residues and fuel wood of inferior quality can cause:

a) the withdrawal of dung and agricultural residues from fields, thereby decreasing soil fertility and levels of food production; b) a decrease in the amount of food available for cattle, which lowers their resistance to disease and may reduce their milk and meat production; c) an increase in the level of harmful smoke emissions where wet or inferior wood is used.

3. economising on fuel consumption can contribute to malnutrition, when eating cold left-overs, warming up cooked food, cooking fewer meals, cooking food for less time or not at all, substituting purses and whole cereals with ground cereals and purchasing more snacks, ready-made foods, sweets and fruit. In most instances these trends increase intestinal infections, impair the absorption of proteins, reduce the intake of vitamins and energy, and simply cause a decrease in the amount of food consumed. As examples, in Senegal the lack of firewood has led people to eat cold left-overs or uncooked millet flour mixed with waler. Keeping prepared food at high (tropical) temperatures causes a fast increase in micro-organisms. In parts of India and Rwanda, women have cut the number of cooked meals from three to one per day, which has particularly dire consequences for young children whose breastteeding needs to be supplemented from the age of 4-6 months.

Also using less fuel for space-heating and boiling or heating water can cause a deterioration of the physical condition of household members. In particular, it can increase the inflammations of wounds not treated with warm water, intestinal infections caused by drinking unbolted water, and eating with dirty hands from insufficiently cleaned plates.

In conclusion the inability to produce enough food and the 'small purchase power' of the population are considered to be two of the major bottlenecks in meeting nutritional requirements. Nutritional inadequacy arises from a lack of access to resources, of which fuel is one. Thus, the main recommendation of this research was that: 'the impact of a shortage of fuelwood can be considered as a nutritional problem and should be a point of concern for rural development' (ibid:349).