THE BLOG

For the World's Poorest People, Cooking Is One of the Biggest Killers - We Can Change That

01/05/2014 17:15 BST | Updated 01/07/2014 10:59 BST

If the TV schedules are anything to go by we love cooking in the UK. But how would you feel about it if every time you put the oven on your life was at risk?

The World Health Organization has estimated that every year 4.3million people die from illnesses caused by exposure to smoke from cooking over coal, wood, dung or biomass stoves. This is more than the number of people dying from Aids, malaria or tuberculosis combined. The superfine particles created by burning wood, such as soot, stick in the lungs and create an environment for pneumonia, stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Of all the threats to life that people in the developing world face, it is astonishing that the simple act of cooking is one of the greatest dangers of them all. And the scale of the tragedy is enormous; nearly three billion people in the developing world cook food and heat their homes with firewood or charcoal on traditional cookstoves or open fires. What is more, smoke-inhalation is a silent killer, the effects build-up slowly, unnoticed, over time.

That no one has been able to adequately tackle this issue is of serious concern. The international community has known for many years about the high risks associated with household air pollution, but little has been achieved in preventing it. Last year the World Bank warned that the various clean cookstoves that have been developed using liquid petroleum gas, ethanol, biogas or fans, are still too expensive for poor families to afford, presenting people with little opportunity to move away from their existing methods of cooking and heating.

Yet access to clean energy could literally power up development. In most households it is women or children who are responsible for collecting fuel. In Africa up to four hours a day can be spent gathering firewood, a time cost that stops women and children from being in paid work or education. Women also suffer most from noxious cooking gases because of their role as cooks and managers of their households increasing their exposure. And there is also a greater risk to women's personal safety by travelling miles to collect fuel.

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Nick Clegg and I met Laura in Mozambique last year - she's now using a clean cooking stove thanks to UK aid. Picture: Cabinet Office

The case for action is clear and the development community can no longer tip-toe around the edges of this problem. Practical and scalable clean cooking solutions need to be devised based on proper research and evidence. The Department for International Development (DFID) has already started making in-roads into this working with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to start creating a global market for clean household cooking solutions to enable 100million households to adopt clean and efficient cooking practices by 2020.

But more needs to be done. We need to understand the problems associated with traditional cooking practices and expand the development, supply and use of clean cookstoves and fuels. This is what I will be pushing for this week at a conference that DFID is holding with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the World Health Organization in London. We need to drive action, improve awareness and to push the international community to recognise that clean energy is a critical in building gender equality and improving women's health as well as giving communities the economic opportunities they need to really power progress on development and lift people out of poverty.