Monday, 28 January 2019

Using wood as fuel

By Hussain Bux Mallah
A rural woman cooking roti using firewood as fuel
Photo credit: Wasim Gazdar

Recently, the PTI government rolled out 350,000 hectares of forests under the ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project in KP. Given the applause that it received from national and international media, the newly elected government at the centre launched a tree plantation drive ‘Plant4Pakistan’ across the entire country. While this is likely to have positive implications for climate change, the resources invested in this project will provide little direct benefits to the poor. The impact of pollution on their health can be reduced if more investments are made in cleaner fuel.

Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2012-13 survey reports that majority of rural population has limited access to cleaner energy sources such as natural gas. According to Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) 2015-16, a major share of fuel and lighting expenditure in rural households is incurred on firewood. About 31 percent of the fuel expenditure is on firewood, 8 percent comprises of dung cakes, 2 percent is coal, charcoal and kerosene and 9 percent is gas (via pipes or cylinders). A number of these fuel sources lead to high levels of pollution.

Even within poor households, pollutants from fuel affect the vulnerable the most. Our fieldwork in rural areas of Sindh found that preparing kitchen fuel and cooking are gendered activities. Collection of fuel is also time consuming, particularly for women and children. Many adolescent girls are withdrawn from school to help in domestic chores especially those relating to cooking. They also have to travel long distances to fetch wood.

Household Air Pollution (HAP) from cooking fuel is associated with a modest increase in child mortality. Women and adolescent girls are most vulnerable to health risks because of their exposure to smoke resulting from burning of firewood which releases carbon monoxide. Infants are particularly susceptible to diseases which can cause premature deaths. The study also provides the link between HAP and low birth weight, neonatal, post-neonatal deaths. Various chronic diseases are also associated with HAP including pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma.

Women’s exposure to smoke increases when they have to cook inside rooms during monsoon season. A household needs more fuel in windy, rainy and cold weather requiring women to heat water for their male members. Most women do multiple activities at a time, for example, cooking and breastfeeding are done simultaneously. In case of natural hazards such as floods, cooking becomes a high stressor for women.

Although tree plantation drives seem to be high priority areas of investment for governments, I strongly think that policymakers should also address the rights of the marginalized rural population using traditional energy sources. There is a need to increase access to cleaner sources like natural gas. A majority of rural areas are currently not connected to the gas supply system. Provision of gas pipelines is a federal subject and should be prioritized for improved health outcomes.