This is an abstract from an article by Amanda Hodge, the South Asia correspondent , published in The Australian on December 21, 2009.


CROUCHED in an east Delhi slum, Sunita grimaces and turns her face from the acrid smoke pouring out of the stove cooking her dinner. The young mother is concerned about the health effects of wood-burning or kerosene stoves but insists the cow dung that fuels her cooker, known as a chulha, is good for you.

"We haven't experienced any problems with smoke and the smoke from the dung is not harmful, I believe," she says.

It's a common belief among the 800 million-odd Indians who depend on chulhas for cooking, heat and often light. But the World Health Organisation estimates pollutants from chulhas - whether they burn coal, wood, kerosene, dung or other biomass - are responsible for the premature deaths of more than 440,000 Indian children each year, and 44,000 women, mostly through chronic respiratory diseases.

It is one of the world's top 10 public health issues - not for the millions of lives lost but because of a suspected link between black carbon, one of the many deadly toxins emitted from such stoves, and receding Himalayan glaciers.

"By darkening the surface of all that ice and snow, the emissions cause more of the sun's heat to be absorbed by the ice and snow, tremendously accelerating the melting process," Mr Gore said.

While carbon dioxide is the main recognised culprit behind global warming, many scientists at the Copenhagen summit last week appealed for policy-makers not to ignore the low-hanging fruit in the climate debate, insisting that reducing pollutants such as black carbon could slow down the warming process considerably. The problem can be reduced with simple public policy measures such as expanding the use of filters on diesel-run vehicles and replacing dung and wood-burning stoves with clean-burning cookers.

"Cutting HFCs (hydroflourocarbons), black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and methane can buy us about 40 years before we approach the dangerous threshold of 2C (increased) warming," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of California.

None of this is news to Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at California's Berkeley University, who has studied chulhas for more than two decades and contributed data to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's third and fourth assessment reports.

The latest IPCC report warns that if the Himalayan glaciers continue to shrink at current rates they could be one-fifth their original size by 2035.

Professor Smith describes the smoke from chulhas as a "toxic tsunami" that exposes families and whole neighbourhoods to levels of harmful pollutants "much higher than living on toxic waste dumps or working in the heaviest industries".

"If next week there were going to be 1000 children a day dying of something, that would be big news, but because this is already happening, and happens every day, it is not," he said in Delhi.

A study by Professor Smith and 12 other scientists, published in The Lancet medical journal this month, estimated that distributing 15 million improved stoves a year around India for 10 years would reduce premature deaths by more than 17 per cent. In New Delhi this week, USAid hosted a conference on chulhas to fast-track solutions to the issue and help the Indian government with its new National Biomass Cook Stoves Initiative.

Both programs are being closely watched by Indian green entrepreneurs such as Brijesh Rawat who, with his New York-based brother, has developed a more efficient gasified commercial chulha that runs on pine needle briquettes.


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