| Boiling Point No. 25 - August 1991 |
Organisation, Geneva, 5-8 June 1991
Impressions by Emma Crewe, Social Anthropologist, ITDGlUniversity of Edinburgh.
Between 400-800 million people, predominantly women and children, are exposed to potentially health-damaging biomass smoke. Although this health risk is well recognized, the correlation between fuel use and specific health effects is not proven, and the effectiveness of smoke exposure reduction techniques not known. For this reason, the Prevention of Environment Pollution Unit of the World Health Organisation's Environmental Health Division, brought together an international group of researchers. They were asked to describe what is already known about the health effects, effectiveness of technical interventions and socio-economic aspects of indoor air pollution from biomass fuels and, more importantly, to identify the priority areas for further research in this domain.
Biomass will remain the only viable fuel for the majority of rural households in the South, although there is wider scope for substitution by alternative fuels in urban areas. Compared to other environmental pollution problems that receive far more attention and funding, the individual and population exposures and extent of mortality and morbidity from biomass smoke are enormous. Epidemiological studies indicate that: poorly ventilated conditions, indoor air pollution can lead to acute and chronic lung and airways disease, secondary heart disease and eye inflammation. The health benefits of reduced biomass smoke exposure can therefore be considerable. combustion efficiency of biomass fuels can also have significant benefits in energy saving and the prevention of greenhouse gases.
The use of biomass fuels is also associated with poorly designed stoves, giving rise to bums and fire hazards as well as injuries and excessive energy expenditure in collecting the fuel. In areas with fuel shortages, collecting and using biomass fuel consumes increasingly more time and intensifies women's workload. In addition, fuel shortages can affect diet by reducing the frequency of cooking, switching to less nutritious but quicker- cooking foods and eating previously cooked food.
However, health, social and technical research is far from complete. For example over 600 million people in China rely on biomass fuels and yet there has been relatively little research on the related health effects. Systematic research programmes testing the effectiveness of smoke exposure reduction techniques are rare.
Improved stoves are not the only viable technical option. Kitchen design has been relatively ignored by householders, architects and housing planners. Yet it plays a key role in comfort, health, safety and productivity for women and children.
Turning to the performance of technical solutions, a recent global survey of improved stove programmes (excluding India and China) indicated a common emphasis on fuel efficiency, with Africa focusing on the problem of deforestation and Latin America concentrating on welfare.
This survey showed that the average time it takes to introduce stoves may be less than once thought - probably 2-5 years for portable stoves, 10-15 for fixed (chimney) stoves and 20-30 years for improved kitchens. In some programmes, dissemination rates have been slow because problem areas have not been targeted and stoves have not been well integrated into other development activities. In commercialized programmes, rapid dissemination depends upon a marketing message that is tailored to the local situation and fulfills people's immediate needs. In Africa, interest in smoke from biomass combustion has been growing, but many stove dissemination programmes have cited lack of appropriate information as a constraint to incorporating smoke reduction into their projects. Effective dissemination has followed from basing project design and implementation on national and community priorities and knowledge, rather than on global generalizations. During the working group sessions, critical gaps in knowledge were identified and translated into priority areas for research.
The final discussion addressed the following question: why has household energy received much less funding than might be expected considering the scale of the problem associated with biofuel use? It was suggested that a lack of political will was partly the result of:
- a shortage of motivated local researchers;
- a lack of awareness about the importance of household energy;
- scientific rivalry and an over-emphasis on the importance of biomedical science;
- a lack of cooperation/communication between groups, sectors and disciplines;
- inflexible structures separating areas within organizations (ea. health, energy, agriculture);
- too little recorded proof of success in projects.
Since the domain of the kitchen and household energy collection and use usually involves women's unpaid labour - part of the undervalued informal sector - it is perhaps not surprising that it has received less attention than it deserves. It is hoped that implementing the recommcndations from this lively and dynamic meeting will begin to correct this.
An official report will be produced by WHO and requests for copies should be sent to:
Ms J Sims, Technical Officer, Prevention of Environmental Pollution, Division of Environmental Health, World Health Organisation, CH - 1211 Geneva 27, SWITZERLAND
Tel: 791 2111,
Fax: 791 07 46,
Telegr: UNISANTE GENEVA
BP 26 will carry a summary of the report.