Hacked Afghan stoves boost women's health and prevent flooding

Nestled between the rugged mountains of the Hindu Kush and the black massif of the Koh-e-Baba, the Afghan province of Bamiyan can be an inhospitable place to live. Temperatures during the country's long winter frequently plunge to minus 20 degrees Celsius.

With no electricity, gas or water infrastructure, the inhabitants of one of the world's most remote regions are forced to cook and heat their homes with shrubs gathered from the surrounding mountains.

The thick smoke that billows from the stoves when the shrubs are burned can cause severe respiratory problems. Bamiyan's women and children, who spend more of their time in the kitchen than men, often suffer the most severe effects of smoke inhalation.

Not only do the stoves destroy health but they also weaken the surrounding environment's natural defenses: the mountainside shrubs used to fire the stoves prevent severe flooding by restricting the flow of water when it rains.

To reduce the amount of carbon monoxide emitted from the stoves and to prevent further environmental damage, an Afghan charity has come up with an ingenious solution.

Backed by UNEP and the Embassy of Finland, the Afghan NGO Conservation Organisation for Afghan Mountain Areas (COAM) has reinvented two traditional Afghan stoves that produce far less of the noxious smoke and are far more fuel efficient.

As the world prepares to celebrate International Women's Day, the inventions, which rely on simple green technology, highlight how improving the lives of women can have an immensely positive impact on the environment.

The redesigns are simple. Tandoors, which are large clay ovens embedded in the floor of a home and traditionally used to bake bread, quickly clog kitchens with smoke. COAM found that simply building the ovens so they are rotated by 90 degrees significantly decreases smoke emissions.

"We wanted to make something which makes less smoke, which consumes less [fuel] and which makes more bread," said Yasir, who was the brains behind the inventions.

The new ovens produce over 90 per cent less smoke and burn 70 per cent less fuel, improving women's health while lowering operating costs.

The second stove that COAM has reinvented is the bukhari, a traditional heater and cooker. The new design allows owners to boil water, bake bread and cook on a hotplate while also heating the home.

Both the tandoor and the bukhari can be fuelled by locally produced high-density briquettes, which produce less smoke and are more energy efficient, reducing the number of plants torn from the region's mountains.

COAM has also developed a solar water heater powerful enough to boil a glass of Kahwah, a traditional green tea, without striking a single match. A large metal dish reflects the sun's rays onto a teapot.

"All of these inventions are really good for children's and women's health and the environment and they also create job opportunities," said Habiba Amiri, COAM's country director.

COAM plans to distribute their environmentally-sound culinary inventions to 10,000 individuals across the province.

"Clean cookstoves initiatives in Afghanistan provide a meaningful link between indoor air quality, forest and landscape protection, and climate change" said Andrew Scanlon, UNEP Country Programme Manager in Afghanistan.

"This simple, strong, and effective stove, which has quickly been taken up by local metalsmiths and communities, is a fantastic example of the power of the private sector, skilled artisans and genuine ecological solutions to change the world."