20 December 2012

Clean Cookstoves Continue Stumbling Through Failures

The pursuit of clean cookstoves is a topic that is frequently met with equal measures of promise and skepticism. Smoke inhalation is considered a public health problem since it affects some 3 billion people and is estimated to lead to 2 million deaths each year. People have tried to tackle the problem for decades to little success and a new study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene finds that ceramic cookstoves used in rural Kenya did not reduce the incidence of pneumonia among children.

The mothers who used the ceramic "upesi jiko" (quick stove) reported that there was less smoke in the home and noticed a decrease in physical irritation caused by smoke when cooking. However, the researchers found that the pneumonia incidence rate of children under three years old was not significantly lower in households that uses upesi jiko as compared to homes that use the traditional three-stone method.

2010 saw the revival of the cookstove with the announcement of the $60 million Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves . The initiative, led by the UN Foundation, now has hundreds of partners from governments to donors to the private sector. Secretary of State used her 2010 CGI remarks to focus on cookstoves where she highlighted that the technology was available to tackle the problem. 

"But today, because of technological breakthroughs, new carbon financing tools, and growing private sector engagement, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient, and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world – stoves that still cost as little as $25," said Clinton

The initiative set out the ambitious goal to support the adaptation of clean and efficient cookstoves in 100 million households by 2020. Some worried that the idea was too aspirational and missed the  missteps by prior efforts to introduce clean cookstoves. "The major flaw in previous cookstove efforts was focusing too much on good design from a designer’s perspective, and not enough from a user perspective," said Alanna Shaikh in a blog post for Aid Watch.

It appears that the technology is also still a problem. The Kenya study findings show that the cookstove used is still not efficient enough to make an impact. “Despite requiring less fuel, these stoves may not be efficient enough,” Robert Quick, MD, MPH, a researcher in the Division of Waterborne, Foodborne,
and Enteric Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the press release. “The belief is that you need much more efficiency, maybe a reduction of 50 percent or more, to really observe the health benefits.”

Quick added that the believes that efficient and clean cookstoves are needed, but the evidence of their efficacy is insufficient. A part of the challenge, as alluded to by Shaikh, is people transitioning from traditional cooking methods to using cookstoves. A five year study in Orissa, India by researchers Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo and Michael Greenstone found that the cookstoves were effective in the short term, but provided little improvement over the long term.

Breakdowns, improper use and poor maintenance all contributed to the failure of the cookstoves, said the researchers. Furthermore, the cookstoves did not reduce fuel use. "While households overwhelmingly claimed that the stoves used less wood, fuel use remained unchanged, and if anything, somewhat increased," wrote Hanna, Duflo and Greenstone in the conclusions. "The lack of obvious benefits may explain why households were not interested in using the stoves optimally."

Behavior change is an important aspect in implementing new technologies and the Hanna study illustrated that challenge. "[S]olving intractable social problems requires fundamental changes in the target population. It also needs a supportive institutional framework to reinforce the right behaviour. Technology can complement this process, but it is no substitute for the human element," argued SC in The Economist citing the Hanna study and the failure of One Laptop Per Child.