This years theme for the United Nations International Day of Clean Air for blue skies is “Healthy Air, Healthy Planet”, to help raise global awareness of air pollution and its devastating impact on health. The UN is very clear about the scale of the problem: Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to global public health, and it particularly impacts children, women and the elderly, with increased links to diseases such as dementia, diabetes, COVID-19, cardio-vascular and neurological diseases. Developed countries have greatly improved their air quality in recent years but many developing countries are, still reliant on wood and other solid fuels for cooking and heating. The result is that many vulnerable and marginalized people also suffer from the worst air quality.
I worked with the organisation DelAgua in Rwanda, photographing their cook stove project. I travelled throughout Rwanda with the DelAgua team photographing the distribution days, community health worker visits and how the program is improving the lives of those involved. Over 3 billion people still cook over polluting fires, a major contributor to carbon emissions, deforestation and climate change. Cooking over open fires or inefficient stoves emits one-quarter of global black carbon emissions—the second largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Household air pollution is the leading environmental cause of premature death and disability, ahead of unsafe water and lack of sanitation, causing more deaths than Malaria, HIV and TB combined. Clean cookstoves are vital to tackle both global challenges and they also provide a plethora of other benefits that impact the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The UN calculates the cost of inaction at $ 2.4 trillion and describes the provision of clean cooking solutions as nothing less than a human rights issue.
The DelAgua cook stove is designed to work for the reality of the lives of the families who use them. It uses wood, but just small pieces of twig and tinder, which rural families can gather without encroaching on forestry. Crucially the design of the stove increases thermal efficiency resulting in quicker cooking speeds and much lower fuel requirements. The stove requires at least 50% less wood than a traditional fire. The stove is durable and saves the equivalent of 14 tons of CO2 emissions over its seven- year life.
Education and ongoing support is central to the work. Every family is visited by a Community Health Worker who explains the dangers of cooking on a traditional fire and household air pollution and the health advantages of cooking on the stove and they also make sure the family know how to use it. Behaviour change is immediate and lasting. 99% of stoves are still in daily use after 2 years.