This Mother's Day weekend, most of us will enjoy a home-cooked meal — maybe even breakfast in bed. We'll probably take it for granted that the meal was prepared in a clean kitchen, where the air is safe to breathe. But for nearly half of the world's population, cooking at home is a deeply dangerous act. In fact, it poses one of the most serious health risks in the developing world, and it's a major threat to the environment.
The reason? Smoke from dirty stoves or open flames. Some 3 billion people live in homes where food is cooked on stoves or over fires burning fuels like wood, dung, charcoal, or agricultural waste. These fuels produce toxic fumes, and in poorly ventilated homes, the mix of chemicals can reach 200 times the level that the EPA considers safe to breathe. It can cause lung cancer, pneumonia, cataracts, low birth weight, even death. According to the World Health Organization, smoke from dirty stoves and fires kills almost 2 million people each year, most of them women and children. It kills more than twice as many people as malaria.
Impact on climate
The impact goes beyond people's health. Burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon, which contribute to climate change. And cutting down trees for fuel causes natural habitats to dry up, forests to disappear, and soil to erode.
On average, women and girls in developing countries spend up to 20 hours a week searching for fuel — time they could spend going to school, running a business, or raising their families. And if they live in areas of conflict, leaving home to search for fuel puts them at great risk of assault or rape.
All of this presents a major challenge — but it can be solved. If we can get cleaner, more efficient cookstoves in wider use throughout the developing world, we can save lives, cut back on carbon emissions, and create new economic opportunities for millions of women.
Fortunately, the technology for clean cookstoves already exists. Several companies are already producing them, and countries like India, China, and Mexico have begun to introduce them in national programs. But the uptake has been slow, because there hasn't been a widescale effort to coordinate these efforts, or to make the stoves affordable in the developing world.
That's why we are excited about the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a partnership led by the United Nations Foundation that brings together governments, multilateral, private sector, and nonprofit organizations. The Alliance will drive research and development efforts to make new stoves that are more durable, affordable, and tailored to the cooking needs of specific cultures. It will help bring down costs, trade barriers, and other obstacles that have prevented cookstoves from being used widely. And it will promote the benefits of clean stoves, to encourage more families to start using them. A major goal for the Alliance is for 100 million households to take up clean cookstoves by 2020.
Reaching this goal will save lives and reduce pollution. It will also give people, especially women and girls, a new tool to create new economic opportunities for themselves. With the right training and a small upfront investment, women can start new businesses selling, repairing and distributing clean stoves.
As we celebrate the mothers in our own lives, let us help millions more by contributing to this cause. Currently, five federal agencies are working with more than 60 foreign governments, nonprofits, international organizations and businesses to take action around this issue. Experts are laying out strategies. Knowledge is being shared. And resources are being committed. But the Alliance is always looking for more governments, non-profits and private companies to partner with.
By supporting these efforts, we can work to improve health around the world, generate economic opportunity, and fight climate change — and that would be a Mother's Day gift to remember.