Time to Tackle One of the World's Deadliest Killers: Cookstove Smoke

Today, nearly half the world's population -- close to 3 billion people -- will eat meals cooked over fires that use charcoal, wood, or even animal waste for fuel. A year from now, 1.9 million of those people will be dead.
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Today, nearly half the world's population -- close to 3 billion people -- will eat meals cooked over fires that use charcoal, wood, or even animal waste for fuel. A year from now, 1.9 million of those people will be dead. Their death certificates will cite pneumonia, lung cancer or tuberculosis, but the underlying cause is exposure to cooking smoke. Women and girls in developing countries, who spend several hours a day cooking meals over open flames or on smoky cookstoves, are disproportionately vulnerable. Smoke inhalation causes these women and children to suffer serious, often fatal illnesses, including respiratory infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

The collective impacts are staggering. According to the World Health Organization, unsafe cooking conditions are the fourth greatest threat to health in developing countries, claiming twice as many lives each year as malaria. The needed resources cannot be mobilized to confront this crisis if the world community doesn't recognize it as such. As we mark World Health Day, it is imperative that a flag of awareness be planted.

Most people who live in affluent countries simply flip a switch or turn a knob to prepare a meal, and any smoke created is whisked away by fans and ventilation systems. Not so in the developing world. The cost of a "clean" cookstove can be a significant obstacle for people who live on $2 or less a day.

There are new reasons for optimism, however. Innovative manufacturers are making more affordable and culturally compatible products - advanced stoves that burn more efficiently and produce fewer harmful emissions. Some feature fans powered by waste heat. Others are solar-powered or use locally abundant plant oil. Such innovative technologies could reach and serve communities in need, if the right market conditions existed.

Unfortunately, there are still significant barriers to large-scale adoption of these solutions. No standards exist to separate good stoves from bad. Distribution networks either don't exist or are underdeveloped. Many consumers don't recognize the health risks of dirty stoves and are reluctant to change their cooking practices. As a result, companies struggle for profitability and can't secure the level of investment to produce at the scale necessary.

Responding to these challenges, more than 20 organizations, led by the United Nations Foundation, recently formed the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The Alliance is a public-private partnership comprised of corporations, governments, and civil society groups committed to tackling this issue.

Over the next 10 years, the Alliance will spur the development and adoption of policy proposals, technological standards, and trade incentives to address this global health issue - one of the deadliest of our time. Members of the Alliance, including the U.S., German, and Norwegian governments, Morgan Stanley, Shell and the Shell Foundation, are investing in health research, technology design, and standard setting. Together, these steps will help to create self-sustaining local markets for clean cooking solutions that respect and conform to local cooking practices. By 2020, the Alliance aspires to contribute to the adoption of 100 million clean and efficient cookstoves, and prevention of millions of needless deaths.

The path to that goal is a thriving, global market for clean cookstoves - one that harnesses the ingenuity and capacity of industry, the reach of the public sector and the advocacy efforts of nongovernmental groups in the communities where people most need these solutions. Integrating distribution of stoves with pre-existing international aid efforts is crucial to achieving cost-effective results.

Cleaner cooking technologies exist right now. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is working to define what makes a stove truly clean, remove trade barriers, and incentivize investment in the stove industry. Success in these areas will get better stoves into people's homes by the millions, improving their health and saving lives.

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