| Boiling Point No. 02 - Special Edition April 1991 |
by Aroon Chomcharn, Wood Energy Conversion Specialist RWEDP, FAO Thailand
One of the concerns of improved stove researchers and promoters is smoke exposure related to health of the stove users and their family members, particularly in developing countries where the household depends almost entirely on biofuels. Good research work, though limited, has been published in the recent pest in which the linkage of smoke with eye and lung diseases among stove users, particularly women, is highlighted.
While accepting that over-exposures to biofuel smoke and heat for a long period and repeatedly is harmful to health, on the other hand, smoke in many rural households has important functions to play. The solution through the introduction of smokeless or chimney stoves alone to correct this problem, therefore, needs careful assessment with a recognition of various needs. A drastic curtailment or a total removal of smoke (and the heat that comes with it) could be harmful to health and the rural economy. How can these conflicting needs be solved ?
It is a well established fact that to some extent smoke still contributes to rural living comfort (and discomfort if too heavily released). Smoke over the fireplace is extensively used for preserving and drying food in rural areas of most countries of Asia. e.g. Myanamar (see photo enclosed), Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.
Food preservation includes drying/smoking to improve product quality/flavour, to prolong shelf-life, to prevent attack from household insects, rodents, cats etc. Using storage jars or other appropriate containers is suitable for some grains and liquids but rarely for other products. Refrigerators are too expensive. In wet seasons, according to many households, the kitchen smoke is essential to prevent moulds and fungi attacking many foods. Therefore it is not unusual to observe the practice of leaving a smouldering fire in the stove after cooking, even though the user admits that the smoke often causes eye irritation.
In a large part of rural Asia, malaria is still a real threat. It is dangerous to allow a free penetration of mosquitoes and other poisonous insects in to the house during the evening and night hours. Many of the poor households do not have mosquito nets to sleep in. Therefore smoke, in addition to providing some warmth, provides some protection to health by repelling insects. Mosquito repellents in sticks/coils, ointments or sprays are not only expensive and rarely available in the village, but are not as effective as smoke.
Livestock also need protection against flies and harmful insects, particularly when kept in the shed/stall day and night. In Nepal, for example, animals' stalls are often located near the household cookstove on the ground floor. I once witnessed a lady using a special chimney pipe she had improvised to take smoke to protect livestock and household members from insects.
Preservation of building material through the indirect deposition of tar from cooking smoke, in particular for the thatched roof and wooden upper structures, is also highly valued by rural households. The use of wood preservatives is still rarely practiced.
Heat for domestic comfort and health in high altitude areas of Asia is still dependent, in a large part, on cookstoves. Removal of smoke from the fireplace/kitchen often compromises this benefit of the open fire. In Bhutan, Nepal, northern parts of India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar etc., the space heating role of stoves deserves high attention when smoke reductions or removal are to be achieved.
So what should be the common stand for improved stove programmes on the smoke issue? Is it sufficient to emphasize household smoke problems alone? Can this 'problem' be solved by stoves alone or as part of broader social development programmes?? Should an integrated approach be taken simultaneously so that the demand for smoke in the households diminishes or vanishes? This means better sanitation and health care, better rural housing (modest, comfortable, safe and decent), improved rural kitchen design for better ventilation, lighting, cleanliness, work function and cooking efficiency' improved household food security, etc.
If improved stoves are to be a genuine part of rural development programmes they must help in bringing about improvement in standards of living of rural societies, including their overall health. This will require a broader approach and more confrontation between the various agencies and disciplines involved.