Studies Seek Paths to Clean Cooking Solutions

August 6, 2013


  • Indoor air pollution killed 3.5 million in 2010
  • 2.8 billion worldwide cook with solid fuels, 78% in rural areas
  • Action plans must be tailored to individual countries, say studies

In Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, making tortillas on a smoky fire is a way of life.  Women spend an average of four hours a day cooking for their families, routinely inhaling toxic smoke from burning wood and charcoal.  Every year in Central America, 37,000 premature deaths—most of them women, but also many children—are caused by household air pollution. All told, about 20 million Central Americans, just over half the region’s people, use wood as cooking fuel.

Moving from Central America to Southeast Asia, we find the same phenomenon in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where 96 percent of the population still uses solid fuels for cooking, making indoor air pollution the country’s number one health threat. This endures even as 72 percent of households now have electricity, up from just 18 percent in 1995.

In Indonesia, about 40 percent of the population—about 25 million households—uses traditional biomass for cooking. Again, the result is tragic: 165,000 premature deaths each year.  It is part of a global problem, especially acute in low-income countries. Worldwide, 2.8 billion people cook with biomass or other solid fuels, 78% of them in rural areas. All are exposed to household air pollution from solid fuels, which killed an estimated 3.5 million people and caused many more cases of respiratory, cardiovascular, and other illnesses in 2010.

“A typical wood fire is about 400 cigarettes an hour worth of smoke,” said Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Sustainable Energy for All initiative, supported by the World Bank Group, aims to bring safe, modern cooking solutions to all by 2030, a goal estimated to require annual investments of $4.4 billion, up from about $100 million at present.

" A typical wood fire is about 400 cigarettes an hour worth of smoke. "
Kirk Smith

Kirk Smith

Professor of Global Environmental Health at the University of California at Berkeley

Coinciding with the World Bank Group’s Energy Sector Directions Paper, which pledges to “expand engagement in clean cooking and heating solutions,” several recent studies analyze the household fuels problem, which has defied solution for generations. These Bank Group studies, What have we learned about household biomass cooking in Central America?, Pathways to Cleaner Household Cooking in Lao PDR,  and Indonesia – Toward Universal Access to Clean Cooking, all point to similar causes of failure of earlier efforts to implement safe cooking solutions:

  • Lack of awareness in households that cooking smoke causes respiratory illness that can bring an early death
  • Easy, cheap (often free) availability of wood or other biomass
  • Cleaner, safer cooking options, including liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, biogas, or efficient cookstoves that dramatically reduce the dangers of biomass combustion have not been available, affordable, or sustainable.

A persistent challenge is that clean cooking remains a “poor person’s problem.”  When short-term incentives have prompted business people to try to build a market for improved cookstoves, their efforts have often foundered. The genuinely safer advanced cookstoves were not affordable, or not adapted to local needs, or not locally-made and thus in short supply.

As for gas-powered solutions, these can work for relatively better-off urban dwellers, but those in remote villages often cannot be reached. Situations vary, but usually this is because there are no pipelines, or roads are inadequate, or there is no supply of gas, or no market network to sell it.

This has to change, say the studies addressing the problem in the countries cited above—Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Lao PDR and Indonesia. Each of these studies outlines how the obstacles to that change can be removed. Although the impact of indoor cooking fires is identical everywhere—respiratory illness and death—the best approach to solving the problem will vary from one place to another, according to these studies.

“We need country-specific action plans in each country,” said Yabei Zhang, author of the Indonesia study, and a World Bank energy economist. “Women are using unsafe cookstoves or open fires because they are conveniently available, affordable and adapted to the types of food they prepare. Clean cooking solutions need to meet those same criteria to be successful.”

All the studies point to the importance of developing market-based clean cooking solutions. Incentives are needed for local entrepreneurs to design, manufacture and market safe cookstoves that are tailored to the country or region, made with local materials, and adapted to local cooking practices. The studies also highlight the need for public awareness campaigns to promote clean cooking solutions.

The challenge is to put these lessons into practice. World Bank Group experts in household energy are working with clients to apply them through the Clean Stove Initiative in East Asia, as well as in Central America.  Efforts are also underway through the Africa Clean Cooking Energy Solutions Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Bank Group is also a partner in the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership that seeks to create a thriving global market for clean and efficient household fuels and cookstoves.