Calls grow to address worrying effects of inefficient and polluting cooking fuels in Kenya
More than 20,000 Kenyans are dying every year due to the effects of inefficient and polluting cooking fuels used by families across the country, several reports have revealed, with millions more at risk of dying early.
Globally, the World Health Organization says that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. The use of inefficient and polluting cooking fuel, such as charcoal and kerosene, is a primary driver of this alarming situation.
Anne Songole, CEO of the Clean Cooking Association of Kenya (CCAK), commented: “Inefficient and polluting cooking fuels are a silent killer in Kenya. An average of 400 Kenyans, the majority of whom are women and children, will die this week as a result of diseases attributed to household air pollution, according to WHO statistics. These diseases are avoidable. It’s time for us to wake up the scourge of inefficient and polluting fuels.”
A recent in-depth study from Dalberg Global Development Advisors notes that 70% of Kenyan households in urban areas use firewood, charcoal, or kerosene as their primary cooking fuel.
“Indoor air pollution from these inefficient and polluting cooking fuels is causing early deaths among affected populations. The most affected are women and children under five years who spend more time in the kitchen. They are affected by respiratory health complications such as pulmonary diseases, asthma, lung cancer, pneumonia, and respiratory tract infections, eye cataracts,” the report states.
Triple threat – health, environment, economy
The WHO has long-reported on the continued impacts of household air pollution, driven by cooking with inefficient and polluting fuels. In Kenya, as many as 8-10% of early deaths are attributable to indoor air pollution from charcoal and wood cooking alone; this excludes the unquantified but likely substantial negative effects of kerosene cooking on lung function, infectious illness and cancer risks, as well as burns and poisonings.
The urban Kenyan cooking fuel market is estimated to be worth Sh60bn – Sh80bn annually, but it remains dominated by inefficient and polluting fuels. Charcoal (22%) and kerosene (29%) are prevalent in urban Kenya due to their wide availability and, traditionally, their relative affordability, despite the rise in prices of such fuels. Another factor in the widespread use of inefficient and polluting fuels has been a lack of awareness about safer and cheaper alternatives, such as LPG and bioethanol.
It is not just Kenya’s health system that feels the strain as a result of these cooking fuels; the environment is suffering greatly, due to green house gas emissions, toxic particles and charcoal-driven deforestation.
According to Dalberg, Kenya loses 10.3 million m3 of wood from its forests every year from unsustainable charcoal and wood fuel use. At a time when a desperate drought is affecting so many Kenyans, the scale of deforestation in an already dry country is especially concerning, given its negative impact on food security and agricultural yields. Dalberg’s report also indicates that household biomass fuel use contributes more than 22 million tonnes of CO2 each year, equivalent to 30-40% of Kenya’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Equally, the economic impact is also very significant. Last year’s WHO report explained that air pollution is leading to more days spent in hospitals and out of the workforce, with a financial impact that is “unmistakable but, like the health costs, often ignored”.
In many affected countries, the WHO notes that health-driven expenses as a result of dirty cooking fuels are expected to grow faster than GDPs, if nothing is done.
Kenya, for instance, loses KSh 200 billion each year as a result of premature deaths brought about by air pollution, according to a study by Global Policy Forum, which made the first major attempt to calculate both the human and financial cost of Africa’s pollution.
A different study by the University of Nairobi and Sweden’s University of Gotenburg suggested that the air in Nairobi is so polluted that it may be causing serious ailments, including heart and lung diseases as well as cancer. In Africa, air pollution kills 712,000 people every year compared with about 542,000 due to unsafe water, 275,000 due to malnutrition, and 391,000 due to unsafe sanitation, says the report.