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In India, an Indoor Health Crisis

Kehmli Devi, a middle-aged Indian woman, bends over her wood-burning stove in her home in northern India. Credit: Athar Parzaiv/IPS

NEW DELHI, Mar 5 2015 (IPS) - For years, Kehmli Devi, a middle-aged woman from the village of Chachadeth in India’s northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, has prepared her family’s meals on a wood-burning stove.

She is one of millions of Indian women who cannot afford cooking gas and so relies heavily on firewood as a source of free fuel.

Gathering wood is a cumbersome exercise, but Devi has no choice. “It takes us five to six hours to gather what we need each day – we have to travel far into the woods to collect it,” she tells IPS. “But we don’t mind, since we don’t have to pay for it.”

“It takes us five to six hours to gather [the firewood] we need each day – we have to travel far into the woods to collect it." -- Kehmli Devi, a housewife in the northern India state of Uttarakhand, who has cooked for years on a wood-burning stove
Buying a cylinder of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), even at subsidized rates, is not an option for her – her entire family makes a collective monthly income of 57 dollars, which works out to less than two dollars a day. They cannot afford to spend a cent of their precious earnings on cleaner fuel.

Further north, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a similar story unfolds in thousands of households every single day.

“If my husband had enough money, we would use LPG for cooking,” says Zeba Begam, who resides in Rakh, a village in southern Kashmir. But since the family lives well below the poverty line, their only option is to use to firewood.

At first, they struggled to live with the smoke caused by burning large quantities of wood in their small, cramped home. Now, Begam says, they are used to it – but this does not make them immune to the range of health problems linked to indoor air pollution.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around three billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and mud stoves burning biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste), as well as coal.

Improper burning of such fuels in confined spaces releases a range of dangerous chemical substances including hazardous air pollutants (known as HAPs), fine particle pollution (more commonly called ash) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

The WHO estimates that around 4.3 million people die each year from diseases attributable to indoor air pollution, including from chronic respiratory conditions such as pneumonia, lung cancer and even strokes.

Other studies show that indoor air pollution – particularly in poorly ventilated dwellings – is linked to adverse pregnancy outcomes in women and negatively impacts children, who are more susceptible to respiratory diseases than adults.

In general, women and children are at far greater risk of suffering the impacts of indoor pollution since they spend longer hours at home.

Millions of Indians at risk

Indoor air pollution is recognised as a pressing issue around the world, particularly in Asia, but India seems to be carrying the lion’s share of the burden, with scores of Indian households relying on traditional fuels for cooking, lighting and heating.

Data from the Government of India’s 2011 Census shows an estimated 75 million rural households (45 percent of total rural households) living without electricity, while 142 million rural households (85 percent of the total) depend entirely on biomass fuel, such as cow-dung and firewood, for cooking.

Despite heavy subsidisation by successive federal governments in New Delhi since 1985 to make cleaner fuels like LPG available to the poor, millions of households still struggle to make the necessary payments for cleaner energy, opting for more traditional, more harmful, substances.

Some estimates put Indian households’ use of traditional fuels at 135 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE), larger than Australia’s total energy consumption in 2013.

Cleaner energy to meet the MDGs

Experts say that there is an urgent need to drastically reduce these numbers, both to improve the lives of millions who will benefit from cleaner energy, and also to meet international poverty-reduction and sustainability targets.

For instance, indoor air pollution is linked in numerous ways to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the U.N.’s largest development initiative set to expire at the end of the year.

According to the WHO, tackling the issue of dirty household fuels will automatically feed into MDG4, which pledges to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by the end of the year; since children bear a disproportionate rate of the disease burden of indoor pollution, helping families switch to cleaner energies could result in longer life spans for their children.

Similarly, women and children spend countless hours collecting firewood, a task that consumes much of their day and a great deal of energy. Reducing this burden on women and children would bring India closer to achieving the goal of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Less time spent on fuel collection also leaves more hours in the day for education or employment, both of which could contribute to MDG1, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

In 2005, the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) put the economic and health cost of collecting and using firewood at some six billion dollars in India alone, representing massive waste in a country nursing a stubborn poverty rate of 21.9 percent of a population of 1.2 billion people.

For Zeba Begam, a resident of the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, cooking with clean fuel is a distant dream. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

For Zeba Begam, a resident of the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, cooking with clean fuel is a distant dream. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Moving towards a sustainable future

As the United Nations moves towards a new era of sustainable development, scientists and policy-makers are pushing governments hard to tackle the issue of indoor air pollution in a bid to severely slash overall global carbon emissions.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, told IPS that the provision of clean energy, particularly for the poor, should be on the agenda at the upcoming climate talks in Paris, where world leaders are expected to agree on much-awaited binding carbon emissions targets for the coming decade.

Ramanathan argued that it was the responsibility of the rich – what he called the ‘top four billion’ or T4B – to help the ‘bottom three billion’ (B3B) climb the renewable energy ladder instead of the fossil fuel ladder.

“In order to avoid unsustainable climate changes in the coming decades, the decarbonisation of the T4B economy as well as the provision of modern energy access to B3B must begin now,” he said at last month’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS).

His words reflect countless international initiatives to cut emissions from dirty household fuels, including the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which estimates that a transition to clean cook-stoves could reduce emissions from wood fuels by up to 17 percent.

Quoting findings from a recent study conducted by experts at Yale University and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Radha Mutthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance, said last month that her organisation planned to “target areas where clean cooking technology can have the greatest impact, not only improving the effects on climate, but also the health of millions of people living in hotspots.”

These ‘hotspots’ have been defined as regions where firewood is being harvested on an unsustainable scale, with over 50 percent non-renewability. In total some 275 million people live in hotspots, of which 60 percent reside in South Asia.

Overall, India and China were found to have the world’s highest wood-fuel emissions, which experts say should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers and legislators that the time for taking action is now

* This story has been updated. An earlier version carried a quote from a former senior official at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who has since resigned.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 
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