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Crisis brewing in Nepal's smoke-filled kitchens
Anil K. Raut from EnvironmentNEPAL tells us about the problem of indoor pollution in the villages of Nepal

Air pollution is a major concern in Nepal's Kathmandu valley. Unregulated urbanisation, increased use of fossil fuel, increasing number of vehicles, poor roads and centralised industrial growth are the main culprits. The problem is even more severe in Nepal’s villages, which are reliant on bio-fuels for cooking purposes.

Air pollution has become one of the major environmental threats to the human health. Annually about 0.8 million people die due to urban outdoor air pollution worldwide. In South Asian cities, about 0.1 million people die prematurely due to air pollution. Kathmandu valley has been suffering from high air pollution levels, a problem worsened by the valley's topography. The dry periods in winter are the worst in terms of particulate concentration.

One look at the energy usage pattern of the country gives one a fair idea of the problem at hand. More than 80 per cent of the population is still dependent on biomass- the traditional sources of energy. The usage of biomass (bio-fuel) for cooking purposes in rural households is making a significant contribution to indoor air pollution. Worldwide, the number of people dying from indoor air pollution is double that of the causalities of outdoor pollution.

A previous study, carried out by Cliff Davidson, Mrigendra R. Pandey and others, looking at houses in the Himalayan region, where bio-mass is commonly used for cooking, found levels of total suspended particulate (TSP) matter in the range of 3-42 milligram per cubic meter. Compare this with the United States standard limit - 0.26 milligram per cubic meter for TSP over one day! This means that Nepalese people who spend most of their day in smoke-filled kitchens are being exposed to indoor air pollution levels that are more than 100 times higher than the safe limit.

Women and children are the major victims of indoor air pollution due to the fact that women, along with their children, spend more time in the kitchen. A study by Holley F. Ried and Kirk Smith has shown that on an average, women in rural Nepal spend more than 90 per cent of the cooking period within 2 meters of the cooking stove and spend about 5 hours a day near such stoves. Studies have also indicated that exposure to firewood smoke in poorly ventilated conditions might increase by 100-400 per cent the chances of young children suffering from Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI).

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) require that by 2015- 11 years from now - governments must ensure environmental sustainability in the ongoing development process along with the improvements in the standard of living. The achievement of this goals is another matter altogether; the government should at least think of the impact of indoor smoke on children's health and try to integrate the policies to reduce indoor air pollution, thereby, reducing the child mortality rate. A detailed investigation of the field situation would help the government in setting priorities.

It is people from lower economic strata who are more vulnerable to the impact of indoor air pollution. People from higher economic classes use more "advanced" fuel sources that significantly reduce indoor smoke. The government has to, therefore, focus on the poor who use biomass fuels for cooking and end up exposing themselves to deadly smoke in their own homes.

Improvements in stoves and fuels, along with better-ventilated rooms, are the main tools for controlling the problem of indoor air pollution. Improved cooking stoves (ICS) are designed so that the burning of biomass fuels is more efficient and the smoke leaves the room through a chimney. According to a comparative study conducted by Holly F. Reid, Kirk Smith and Bageshowri Sherchan, the mean personal exposure to TSP in traditional (agena) cooking stoves and improved stoves were found to be 3.92 milligram per cubic meter and 1.13 milligram per cubic meter respectively. Similarly, mean personal exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) in traditional stoves and improved stoves was found to be 380 ppm and 67 ppm respectively. This implies that ICS, in comparison to traditional stoves, reduce indoor TSP concentration by 71 per cent and CO concentration by 82 per cent.

Better cooking fuel usually means using liquid or gaseous fuel instead of solid fuel. In urban areas, among the high economic classes, the use of kerosene and LPG (liquid petroleum gas) for cooking has become quite common. However, in rural areas, these fuels, which have to be imported from abroad, are either not available or are too expensive. The use of biogas- generated from animal and agricultural waste, both of which are abundantly available in rural areas- is therefore the fuel most appropriate for reducing indoor air pollution in villages.

So far, about 140,000 Nepali households have made the switch to improved cooking stoves and over 110,000 biogas plants have been installed. Although these figures are encouraging, they are still insignificant in comparison to the number of rural households that continue to burn biomass fuel in traditional stoves.

Anil K. Raut
Programme Officer- Environment Pollution Division,


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Raut, Anil K.
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