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Cleaner, safer living through improved cookstoves

October 1, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A traditional "three stone fire" is both inefficient and unhealthy: heat escapes out from all sides, which consumes more wood, and more smoke pours out. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Zaina Byamungu, displaced by conflict in Congo, has been trained by Mercy Corps on how to build, maintain and use fuel-efficient stoves. With these new skills, she can start their own businesses to make and sell the fuel-efficient stoves. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Cooking is one of the most basic human activities. But, for two billion women around the world, cooking the daily meal over an open fire is all too often associated with choking smoke, long journeys for fuel collection and a plethora of personal hazards: high numbers of women report being threatened, assaulted or raped while collecting wood.

Open fires are also really inefficient. Households tend to use, on average, between 2-10 kilograms (4-22 pounds)of wood a day. Multiplied by the needs of whole communities and combined with rising populations, it is easy to see how cooking on open fires can lead to wide-scale deforestation. In addition, the soot particles from open fires — so-called “black carbon” — are also one of the major culprits in global warming.

Providing clean cooking stoves is a win/win solution. A fuel-efficient stove helps to address energy poverty by reducing household fuel wood requirements by up to 50 percent. Women who were previously spending precious hours collecting wood have time for other activities, including income generation. Households that were previously purchasing wood can save money and have greater resources for spending on other vital areas such as education and food. The reduced exposure to smoke leads to improved health for women and children, while the threat to forests around the world is lessened.

Promoting the uptake of fuel efficient stoves is a cornerstone on Mercy Corps’ energy poverty strategy and great work is being done across the globe.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of people who fled ongoing war ended up in camps close to Virunga National Park. In the especially challenging circumstances of conflict and displacement, Mercy Corps has trained hundreds of internally-displaced people (IDPs) to build simple mud stoves which replace the traditional “three stone fires.” This has dramatically reduced the number of attacks on women as they forage for wood in Virunga National Park and helped to reduce the levels of deforestation in this World Heritage site. Protecting this fragile environment is particularly important, given that it is home to the last vestiges of the mountain gorillas.

An innovative aspect of this programme is that the reduced wood use, and scale of the project, means that it is contributing to significant reductions in CO2 emissions. This has made the project eligible for the sale of carbon credits. Mercy Corps is working with a carbon retailer for the sale of these credits, and has put specific mechanisms in place to ensure that emissions reductions are monitored properly.

In Myanmar, hundreds of thousands lost their lives and livelihoods, and delicate regional eco-systems were devastated in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Mercy Corps is now renewing hope and creating new opportunities through a market-led approach to energy poverty. Potters are being trained in simple mud stove construction and will also be helped with access to markets. The creation of sustainable fuel supplies is being forged through the replanting of rapidly-growing fuelwood trees and mangroves.

From Haiti to Honduras and from Guatemala to Georgia, there is movement in the countries that we are working in to install cleaner, safer, cheaper and more efficient cooking technologies that transform lives while protecting the environment. The predicted rise in fuel prices, together with the urgent need to improve the lives of those who are already amongst the most vulnerable to the shocks of climate change, means that this will continue to be a high focus over the years to come.