Cover Image
close this bookBoiling Point No. 02 - Special Edition April 1991 (ITDG, 1991, 32 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSmoke Pollution
View the documentDialectics of Improved Stoves by Kirk R Smith, East-West Centre, Hawaii, USA
View the documentWhite Rabbits!
View the documentThe Chimney Approach to Smoke Pollution
View the documentResearch Needs - Biofuel Stove Technology
View the documentWoodsmoke - who will put it out?
View the documentCookstove Smoke - The Other Side of the Coin
View the documentDomestic Air Pollution in Rural Kenya
View the documentA Chimney is Not Enough!
View the documentIndoor Air Pollution in Rural Malaysia
View the documentReferences:

White Rabbits!

by Peter Young, Senior Technical Manager, Fuel for Food Programme, ITDG

When I was a child I lived on a small farm and we frequently had bonfires to bum rubbish. It seemed no matter which side of the fire you stood the smoke would follow you around. I learnt at an early age smoke makes you cough and brings tears to your eyes. An old folklore suggested if you said "White Rabbits" the smoke would go way and by some strange magic it often did. Thirty years on, I look back and realize these were games we used to play as children, having said "White Rabbits" in many smokey kitchens not once has the smoke gone away. But it would be nice if we could say "White Rabbits" to one billion households who cook with wood in smokey kitchens and their kitchens would become clean.

In this special issue of Boiling Point, we look at other forms of "White Rabbits" and clearly they do not work by special magic either. Much of the information in the articles is not new and covers over 10 years of experience. This issue highlights the fact that while some research has gone on in the past, awareness of the dangers of smoke in the kitchen is still barely recognised by householders and development institutions. Conditions in the kitchens of most developing countries are the same as they were many centuries ago. "Woodsmoke: Who will put it out?" is a typical and powerful account of some of the research carried out in India. It gives convincing evidence of the dangers women and children face in their own homes when they are dependent upon woodfuel for cooking their daily meals. Equally convincing evidence exists for Nepal, Pakistan and Kenya, but these countries are in a minority and most developing counties have not done this type of research. The work carried out in Gujarat, India was conducted over 10 years ago and we need to ask ourselves why so little has changed since then.

However, there have been some notable changes in recent years brought about by "energy conservation" pressures. The expectation that chimneys could greatly improve fuel efficiency and remove smoke has fumed to disillusionment. Long term studies indicate that the performance of improved stoves in the kitchen is considerably poorer than in the laboratory.

This of course can be attributed to many factors, such as poor durability, lack of maintenance, incorrect use and inappropriate design. Many of these problems can be overcome through better training and greater understanding of stove designs (see "Chimney Approach to Smoke Pollution" by W. Micuta and E. Haas). Some experts now feel that the role and future direction of improved stove programmes need redefining. Kirk R. Smith (see "Dialectics of Improved Stoves") reviews many of the diametrically opposing issues that face stove designers, project managers and energy economists. So tough is it to rationalise these issues, few projects have developed any clear strategy and precise and realistic objectives to aim for. This has resulted in many projects meandering from strategy to strategy slowly becoming paralysed by confusing and contradictory data from increasingly complicated M & E systems.


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In this respect the Ceylon Electricity Board in Sri Lanka has rationalised the issues better than most. Dissemination of improved stoves has reached over 300,000 households or 11% of all households. Subsidies are provided to rural areas but commercial sales now account for over 40,000 stoves per annum. The benefits are 30% shorter cooking time, 25% lower fuel consumption or greater quantities of hot water. Most houses report lower emissions and less soot on the pots but this has not been a priority issue in the project because most urban homes have chimney vents leading to the outside. After 5 years of promotion, dissemination is taking off simply because the stove meets people's needs.

What really comes out of Kirk R Smith's very comprehensive overview, is that if stove projects are to succeed then the projects themselves must rigorously determine the priorities and then set clear objectives.

While low emissions in the kitchen give some benefit to the inhabitants, there may also be some disadvantages 'The Other Side of the Coin" by Aroon Chomcham points out the benefits of the smoke for drying crops or fuel and as an insect repellent. Of course not every kitchen in the developing world has these conflicting requirements but in situations where they do exist, determining the priorities through careful household research is essential and it is perhaps wise for projects to develop a range of stoves to meet different needs. It is equally essential that households have a free choice of design.

For far too long the stove in the kitchen has been the centre of attention. The article "A Chimney Is Not Enough": by Maria Nystrom points out that the kitchen system as a whole needs to be improved. The kitchen is the second most important workplace in the world (first the farm). Design consideration towards a better environment has been zero in most developing countries. This low priority is clearly a reflection of the low status of women.

The argument that the kitchen is not a productive unit is neither here nor there - the simple fact that a woman lives nearly half her life in the kitchen which at best impairs her health, at worst slowly kills her is unacceptable. A better environment and less time spent doing household chores must contribute to her own well being, her productivity and the family welfare as a whole.

As a result of the general lack of success with chimney stoves there is a growing recognition that improved kitchen ventilation and layout can greatly benefit the family. Nevertheless projects should be careful not just to accept this as the solution because others have failed. Kitchen design is complex and there are no short cuts without expensive and detailed research on household needs, climatic conditions and costs involved.

Dilip R Ahiya in the article "Research Needs, Biofuel Technology" points out that emissions from biofuels are not just handful to cookstove users but are a worldwide pollutant and make some contribution to the so called greenhouse gases. Combustion produces hydro-carbons, CO, CO2 and particulates. Methane for example, one of the hydro carbons is a particularly dangerous gas and is roughly 23 times more potent than CO2. Therefore this is a strong argument for improved combustion efficiency as a means to lower emissions rather than just venting emissions outside the kitchen. It suggests that high combustion efficiency and high thermal transfer efficiency without chimneys may be a better medium term solution than the current types of chimney stoves. Filip R Liya has calculated that biofuel combustion contributes only 2% to global warming and so should not create any great concern amongst global planners and environmentalists. It will perhaps emphasise the fact that the western countries are more to blame for global warning than is the developing world.

Although determining the significance of each country's contribution to global warming is extremely complex and far from being understood any form of energy that is clean must have a very bright future. For households in developing countries this may mean switching to cleaner fuels such as LPG, or kerosene and to electricity for some specialised appliances such as rice cookers. These fuels have the added bonus of being clean and convenient to use.

Most developing countries have been reluctant to pursue energy switching policies more strongly because they make heavy demand on foreign exchange. History has shown that the recently developed countries like Korea have switched entirely from low grade fuels to mainly fossil fuels in less than 20 years. It also appears that switching to fossil fuels does not necessarily bring about development. The lack of economic development of many third world countries therefore still remains at the centre of the problem of improving peoples general well being. Improving woodstoves has a contribution to make but is no real alternative to basic development practices, such as better education, enhanced women's status, better use of resources and greater world wide influence in policy setting.