Smoke and Mirrors

Globally almost 3 billion people, half the world’s population, cook over wood, charcoal, and dung. Firewood has been used as a fuel for heating and cooking since the beginning of mankind. According to the WHO, however, the exposure to the resulting household air pollution kills over 4 million people a year—one person every 8 seconds. Smoke kills more people than TB, HIV/Aids and malaria combined. In addition, 11 million burns and 200,000 deaths from burn injuries are recorded. It is an epic crisis largely unnoticed by the world.

Besides enormous health issues, there are multiple other impacts: the safety risk for women and girls fetching wood; the socio-economic loss of time spent collecting and preparing biomass; the climate impact of 1 billion tons of CO2; as well as the environmental impact of deforestation and the degradation of ecosystems that influence food security and water levels. Two approaches promise to improve the situation: promoting more efficient and sustainable use of traditional biomass; or encouraging people to switch to modern cooking fuels and technologies.

Malawi is one of the most affected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with 13,000 deaths directly attributed to smoke, as more than 98 percent of 17 million Malawians rely on traditional biomass for cooking. An estimated 50,000 hectares of forest are lost every year to provide wood fuel and charcoal. As in other parts of Africa, governments and NGOs build their hopes on improved, more energy efficient cookstoves. But why does implementation seem so difficult?

E-book: 'Toxic Planet: The Global Health Crisis'

The Pulitzer Center launches its newest e-book: "Toxic Planet: The Global Health Crisis"—a searing look at pollution, an issue that affects us all. Now available on iTunes, Atavist, and Kindle.