clean fuels

Clean fuel for cooking…”The absent right” kills millions of women annually!

When Luciana cooks, the smoke from burning coals irritates her eyes and chest and makes her cough.
When Luciana cooks, the smoke from burning coals irritates her eyes and chest and makes her cough.

In Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, “Luciana Mandia” wakes up every morning, gives her son a kiss on his face before going to work in a shop, and in the middle of the day she comes back quickly to home to spend several hours cooking food for her family.

Luciana is 37 years old, she said in her interview with “Scientific American” that she used to use charcoal as a cooking fuel, like most residents in her city, who face great economic hardship, so buying a gas or electric stove is a luxury they can’t afford. 

When Luciana cooks, the smoke from burning coals irritates her eyes and chest and makes her cough. The smoke increases because there are bits of coal that didn’t burn well, but she can’t keep away from the stove as the charcoal doesn’t produce enough heat to cook the food from the first time, so she has to add more and more charcoal to finish cooking.

Statistics show that Tanzania is one of several countries where less than 5% of the population has access to clean cooking fuel, according to a report issued by the World Health Organization last June. The report also found that the top twenty countries with this problem, have 81% of the world’s population deprived of access to clean cooking fuels, and the crisis is intensifying in the the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, Uganda and Tanzania.

clean fuel
Photo credit: Hadeer Elhadary

Why are women most affected?

In developing countries, the roles of cooking, collecting firewood and preparing fuel are closely linked to women, with serious implications for their health and social life. Cooking by using fires contaminated with kerosene fuel, coal, firewood and agricultural residues causes indoor air pollution in homes, resulting in several diseases such as pneumonia, stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer, and this leads to the death of about 3.8 million people annually, most of them women and children, according to the World Health Organization report.

Luciana is one of the 2.6 billion people in the world who still cook their food with polluted fuel, as she couldn’t fulfill her simple dream of having a gas stove in order to save the long time she spends on making the food, and protect her health from damage. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the luxury of thinking about the dream of electricity because of the high cost.

Ragia El-Gizawy, responsible for the health and environment section at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says: “When solid fuel burns inside the house, it produces very small particles that penetrate the mucous membranes of the body and enter the blood and cause brain diseases, clots and respiratory disorders, which leads to congestion, coughing and eye infections, and usually women and children spend more time at home because they are associated with household tasks and cooking so they are more vulnerable to these diseases, in addition to bearing the burdens related to collecting firewood for the cooking process, and the possibility of experiencing violence or sexual harassment during their firewood-gathering trips”.

Al-Jizawi added: “Scientific researches proved that there is a relationship between air pollution and the risk of lung cancer and chest allergies, and the degree of risk increases inside the house because the air isn’t renewed compared to the air outside the house, at the same time, pollution carries risks for everyone, and fossil fuels contribute to increasing carbon emissions and lead to higher pollution rates.

This fate was faced by Luciana’s younger sister after she got a lung disease as a result of inhaling intense coal smoke. She cooks the cassava plant using charcoal and wood and then sells it to people. Thousands of women in her city are like her as they spend long hours cooking food in the same way to sell it in public transport stations and crowded places to get money. Said by “Luciana”.

In the crisis of unclean cooking, women face discrimination not only related to health risks, but also spending their time collecting and preparing fuel, traveling long distances or navigating difficult terrain to collect and chop wood, or making dung balls and preparing stoves. At the same time, they are responsible for cleaning operations for utensils and washing clothes after cooking is finished, according to a report in which the “Clean Cooking Alliance”, the “World Bank” and several other parties participated.

The report, issued at the end of last March, conducted a gender analysis in seven African countries and found that women spend an average of 2.7 hours a day cooking, compared to only 0.35 of an hour for men, which shows the extent of discrimination against women, and another report from World Health Organization found that the use of unclean fuels threatens women’s societal equity, as collecting fuel causes muscle damage and takes a great deal of time, which prevents women from performing other useful activities such as income-generating work, and may also lead to risks of physical abuse and violence.

This effect is part of the suffering of Luciana, whose day is divided between work and hard cooking.She has to put in more time and effort to cook her food in the traditional way, but if she had a gas or electric stove, she would have had extra hours to finish other tasks, have some entertainment, or spend time with her child.

More than 40% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean fuels for cooking, and 10% doesn’t have access to electricity, according to Patricia Espinos, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Speaking at the Berlin Energy Transition Conference last month, she said: “Climate change affects everyone in the world but not everyone is affected to the same extent. Women are the most affected, and their struggle to access clean cooking fuels is one example of this. A fair transition to clean energy and access to it is a key point when we talk about climate change. How can we ask a developing country to stop using coal if we don’t offer alternative solutions? We must also recognize that climate change cannot be separated from achieving development”.

Making energy available to women

Increase funding to invest in “Energy for Women” was a demand of conference speakers. Sheila Obrocha, Director of “Energia” organization for Gender Equality in Energy, said in her speech that increased funding is needed to end energy poverty for women by providing clean energy services with access to them, working to achieve a fair participation of women in the field of energy, and offering them jobs in the fields of renewable energy and traditional fields as well.

The world loses $2.4 trillion annually because of unclean cooking fuels, and more than half of that $1.4 trillion annually is associated with health impacts, $0.2 trillion as climate impacts, and $0.8 trillion in lost productivity for women, according to a World Bank report for access to cooking fuel services in 2020.

In the town where “Lucina” lives, the average price of a small coal pan is about half a dollar, meaning she spends about $15 a month to buy fuel for cooking, which is the only price she can afford compared to her monthly salary. That means that women in her city don’t need only offering clean fuel but also supporting them economically to access it.

Luciana’s experience differs from Hind Aref’s experience, who lives in the village of Ezbet El-Minshawi in Gharbia Governorate in Egypt. She owns a gas stove that allows her to cook cleanly, but every few days she is forced to use another stove working by burning wood to save gas tubes which cost eighty-five Egyptian pounds (about $4.5) per month.

Hind, 33 years old, uses this oven in order to make some types of food that take a long time to be cooked, and may cause the contents of the tube to run out quickly, and although the oven hasn’t caused her health problems so far, there is an agreement in her village says that women with chest or eye problems should not use this oven.

This story is originally published in Scientific American – Arabic edition

Hadeer El-hadary
Hadeer El-hadary is a freelance Egyptian journalist. She’s written for Egyptian and Arab websites such as Scientific American, Vice Arabia, and Shorouk News. Her work focuses on the topics of environment, climate change, science, health and women’s rights. She’s won an award from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate for an environmental story about converting date palm seeds into fuel and other products, and another award from Plan International organization and the Ministry of Social Solidarity for a story about discrimination against women in job interviews.