'Clean cookstove' program aims to improve health of world's women

Exposure to smoke and toxins from cooking fires is blamed for the deaths of millions of women and children each year. A public-private partnership, announced by Hillary Clinton Tuesday, is on a global clean cookstove mission.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at an event on Tuesday. Clinton announced an initiative to make clean and efficient cookstoves available to women around the world, limiting women's exposure to smoke and toxins from cooking fires.

Cooking daily over open fires, or on inefficient clay stoves, poses risks to hundreds of millions of women and children that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for one, is working to reduce.

On Tuesday, she announced an initiative to make clean and efficient cookstoves available to women around the world – an effort to reduce the more than 2 million deaths each year that health officials attribute to women's exposure to smoke and toxins from cooking fires.

The smoke and soot of the family hearth are also a major cause of pneumonia in infants – a leading factor in the stubbornly high infant-mortality numbers affecting some of the world’s poorest countries, public health officials say.

The cookstove initiative is a partnership of governments, nongovernmental groups, and private companies. The idea is not simply to flood poor countries with a one-size-fits-all cooking alternative – an approach that hasn’t gotten very far in the past – but rather to consult finicky local tastes and use local markets to develop and distribute different cookstoves for different regions and cultures. The objective: create cleaner, healthier, environmentally sound and locally adapted stoves that women will want.

“If local tastes are not consulted, [the stoves] will stack up and not be used. That’s why a market-based approach is needed,” Secretary Clinton said in announcing the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, former President Bill Clinton’s international development organization.

The US came up with an initial $50 million to launch the program, along with the UN Foundation, philanthropist Ted Turner’s organization, several other countries including Germany and Peru, and corporations including Shell and Morgan Stanley.

The UN Foundation will address some of the major challenges facing the cookstove plan – like how to create a must-have for local consumers – at a formal launch of the initiative in New York on Thursday.

The initiative’s motto is “100 by 20,” Clinton said, meaning the goal is to have 100 million of the new cookstoves in use in developing countries by 2020. She added that common use of clean cooking alternatives would be as simple and effective in addressing a “cross-section” of developing-world ills as bed nets have been in tackling malaria.

Experts including education and environmental specialists have said for years that the widespread use of inefficient wood-burning fires for cooking and heating poses a range of problems beyond health issues.

Home fire-burning leads to deforestation and is the second-largest source of greenhouse gases after fossil-fuel burning, experts say. And the millions of girls sent out every day to gather wood for the family (in most cultures girls are assigned this chore) spend that much less time in school.

Appearing with Clinton, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said the range of problems that can be addressed by changing the way much of the world cooks makes the issue emblematic of the era’s global challenges. “This is in many ways the ultimate environmental justice issue,” she said.

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