The challenge of the chulha

About 24 years ago, I was in a house in a small village some distance from Udaipur town in Rajasthan. A government functionary was explaining how an improved chulha (cookstove) worked— they had installed it in the kitchen. At that time, India was waking up to forests being devastated. It was believed then (wrongly, as it turned out) the key reason was poor people cutting trees to cook food. It was also being understood smoke from chulhas was carcinogenic and that women were worst hit by this pollution. The answer was to design improved chulhas—for better combustion and with a chimney.

The woman owner of this improved stove was cooking the day’s meal. I asked if she was happy with what science and government had donated to her. Her answer was simple: “Looks good, does not work. I modified it.” Her problem was that, in this area, women cooked gruel on big utensils. Her home-made original stove was fitted to her diet and her utensils. The improved chulha, with its small opening to streamline the fire, was of little use. When the chulha was designed, nobody asked her what she needed. Nobody explained to her the laws of thermodynamics, so that she could fathom why the stove looked and worked as it did. And nobody was there who could repair or reshape her cookstove. She had simply broken the opening to fit her needs. Carefully calculated combustion in the laboratory of the local university and delivered through a government programme had turned to hot air.

I learnt my most valuable lesson that day. Designing technologies for diversity and affordability is much more complex than sending a man to the moon.

Consider the government’s own statistics. By 1994, some 15 million improved chulhas were introduced across the country. A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research found, in many cases, the stoves were not appropriately designed or had broken with use; over 62 per cent of the respondents said they did not know who to contact for repairs. No surprise here. Technology deployment in poor and unserviced households is a job the market does badly.

But why am I discussing this moment of development history? Well, cookstoves are back. This time, on the world stage. Science has discovered black carbon—soot—is a key contributor to climate change; these particles warm the air; when they settle on glaciers, the latter melt. So now, soot from chulhas poor households use—burning wood, twigs and cowdung—stands indicted for climate change. A bill has been introduced in the US Congress requiring the country’s environment protection agency to regulate black carbon and direct aid to black carbon reduction projects abroad, including introducing chulhas in some 20 million homes.

I don’t dispute the science of black carbon. There is no reason to argue nothing should be done to improve and substitute the polluting and noxious chulhas of the poorest. The problem is not in the intent. The problem is in the ‘why’ and the ‘what needs to be done’. Today, the international community sees these chulhas as an easy solution: 18 per cent of the problem comes from these implements, so replace them. Here’s a quick and simple climate fix: creating space for cars and power stations to continue to pollute. Also, the international community is today equating this ‘survival’ emission—of poor people with no alternative but to walk long distances to collect firewood, sweep the forest floor for leaves and twigs and do backbreaking work to collect and dry cow-dung, all for some ‘oil’ to cook their food—with the ‘luxury’ emissions of you and I, who drive to work and live in air-conditioned comfort.

This distinction is necessary. For policy and action. Otherwise, an important opportunity—provided to us by the poorest in the world—to reduce emissions in the future will be lost. Lost, once again, to the ignorance of the international community regarding how the other half lives and the arrogance of powerful polluters. Let us be clear: the poorest of the world, who use polluting chulhas because they cannot afford commercial fossil fuel, provide us the only real space today to avert climate change.

According to 2006 International Energy Agency data, roughly 13 per cent of the world’s primary energy supply can be classified as ‘renewable’. Of this, new renewables—solar, wind, geothermal and cogeneration—make up just about 4 per cent and hydroelectricity 16 per cent. The bulk—80 per cent—of what is renewable comes from biomass burning, from the very chulhas of poor families. It is these families, living on the margins of survival, already vulnerable to climate change impacts, that are in the renewable energy net. They are not the problem. They are the solution to our excesses.

The energy trajectory is such that these families, when they move out of poverty, will also move out of cooking on this biomass stove. They will walk up the fossil fuel stairway to liquid petroleum gas (lpg). Every time they move away, as they must, one less family will be using renewable energy; one more, like you and me, will begin polluting with long-life greenhouse gas emissions. The difference is black soot pollutes locally—it literally kills the women who cook—but has a relatively short life in the atmosphere. So, unlike carbon dioxide, it disappears in a few weeks.

The poorest, therefore, provide the world the perfect opportunity to leapfrog—they can move from using renewable energy, currently polluting, to using more renewable energy, but which is clean for them and the world. It is this objective that must drive our efforts, not a plan to pick on the poorest so we can continue to pollute.

This is not easy. It will not be cheap. Science now must invent that cheap, biomass-based chulha that can be sold, distributed and used in millions of diverse households across the world. Are we up to the challenge?

—Sunita Narain