For the more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar sheltering in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the simple act of cooking a meal lies at the heart of a complex web of health, safety, nutrition and environmental concerns. Community Partners International (CPI) is launching a project to bring improved cookstoves into refugee households in Cox’s Bazar to help reduce firewood consumption that drives environmental degradation and deforestation, and support efforts to decrease levels of indoor air pollution that can negatively impact people’s health.
Every day in Cox’s Bazar, refugees use an estimated 700 tons of firewood for cooking. With 2,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land already taken up by the camps, many thousands more hectares surrounding the camps are now being depleted of vegetation with even tree roots dug out of the ground for use as firewood. With such a large population to sustain, these resources are under enormous strain.
Alongside the significant environmental impact, this deforestation contributes to the risk of landslides during the monsoon season, and the lack of tree shade makes the camps hotter in the dry season. Refugees often have to walk many miles to remote and isolated locations, sometimes during hours of darkness, to find firewood. This can place them at risk. The difficulty of finding firewood also means that refugees sometimes have to sell part of their food supplies in order to buy firewood to cook food with. With less food to eat, they are at greater risk of malnutrition.
Many families in Cox’s Bazar use a traditional stove to cook with, often just a simple fire pit or clay hearth with a wood fire. These traditional stove designs have low thermal efficiency. They lose a lot of heat and require a substantial amount of firewood or other solid fuel to prepare a meal.
These stoves are often located inside the shelter due to the lack of external space and the difficulty of cooking outside in hot or wet conditions. Constructed of bamboo, wood and plastic tarpaulins, the shelters are often poorly ventilated, and so the large quantities of particulate matter (smoke and soot) emitted by the cooking fires are trapped inside. After only just a few minutes of cooking, the air in the shelter becomes thick with smoke that irritates the eyes and throat and makes breathing difficult. Many of the shelters have thick layers of soot on the walls and ceilings due to these cooking fires.
The health risks associated with indoor air pollution from cooking fires are well documented. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution, including particulate matter and carbon monoxide, caused by inefficient and polluting cooking practices. This air pollution can cause a wide range of non-communicable diseases including acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke and heart disease. Children under five years of age are particularly vulnerable to particulate matter inhaled from household air pollution.
Among the organizations and agencies providing services in Cox’s Bazar, there is a large-scale and coordinated effort to ensure that refugees have access to clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels to reduce deforestation and impacts on health caused by the use of firewood. At present, there are two areas of focus for fuel – liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed rice husk briquets.
At the time of writing, around 21,000 households in Cox's Bzar have received LPG stoves and gas cylinders, and around 103,000 households have received supplies of compressed rice husks. While LPG has an advantage in terms of efficiency and cleanliness, with low particulate matter emissions, it is logistically challenging and expensive to supply a population of the scale that is currently residing in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Compressed rice husks are relatively easier to store and distribute but produce significantly more particulate matter than LPG when burnt.
Community Partners International (CPI) is participating in this effort through a project to distribute 1,000 improved cookstoves to 1,000 households (approximately 4,500 people). The project is focused on Camp 8 of the Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site. This camp does not have any current cookstove programs and the majority of households continue to use traditional stoves. CPI has identified two low-cost stove models, produced locally in Bangladesh, that have high fuel-efficiency and low carbon monoxide emissions. These improved cookstoves consume around 50% less fuel than traditional stoves. In selecting the 1,000 households to participate in the project, CPI is applying a range of criteria, prioritizing women-headed households and households with children, and taking into consideration current stove usage and their level of interest in joining the project.
To support project implementation, CPI is working with local partner the Village Education Resource Center (VERC). VERC has been working with the Camp 8 community for some time and has developed strong networks and an understanding of the community dynamics.
CPI is also partnering with Nexleaf Analytics, a U.S. nonprofit that designs sensor technologies and generates data analytics, to install their StoveTrace device in five of each of the two stove models, as well as a further five in traditional stoves. The StoveTrace devices will gather data on emissions, usage, durability and the true cost of ownership of each kind of stove. This data will be used to support assessments the effectiveness and impact of CPI’s cookstove program and provide useful comparative data on stove performance.
To encourage strong community engagement, empowerment and local leadership within the project, CPI will work with VERC to set up community-based Energy Management Groups (EMGs). These groups will consist of 8-10 community members and will cover around 100 households in their catchment area. Comprised primarily of women, they will provide input and feedback throughout the project, visit the local community to consult with households about stove use on a regular basis, and support project implementation at the community level.
Additionally, CPI will support five female volunteer “Cookstove Ambassadors” who will work closely with the EMGs. These Cookstove Ambassadors will play a key role in raising awareness and understanding in the community of the benefits of improved cookstoves and will support project activities such as cooking competitions. They will also liaise with community leaders in other camp areas of the Kutupalong-Balukhali extension site to advocate for wider adoption of CPI’s improved cookstove program.
CPI estimates that these improved cookstoves will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cooking in these communities by an estimated 2,000 tons per year. The reduced need for firewood as fuel for cooking will help to reduce environmental degradation and deforestation in the areas surrounding the camp.