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Take a deep breath. Smell the air in the room.
Do you notice anything?
Like most households in the developed world, your air is probably clean. Free from smoke. Free from carbon monoxide. Free from harmful particles. You and I go about our day enjoying pure, harmless air.
But it is not that way for everyone in the world.
In fact, for most people living in third world countries, filthy, smoky air is simply a part of life at home. Because most impoverished people have no access to cooking gas or electric stoves, families must burn combustible materials to cook, boil water and heat their dwelling. And what do these things all do when burned? They produce smoke.
I’ve seen it all over. In Nairobi’s Kibera slum they burn charcoal. In India they burn cow dung. And here in Panama, they burn wood. But until I lived among the Ngöbe people, I never realized how big of an issue this really is.
A Smoking Hut
The other morning, while living in the village of Llano Ñopo, I woke up and stepped out of my hut to see a jaw-dropping sight. There, right in front of me, was another hut entirely shrouded in a cloud of white smoke.
Inside, a mother was busy cooking breakfast for her family. As she burned piece after piece of wood to get the water boiling, she was filling her small hut with thick, noxious smoke. Her older children stared at me from the haze. Her youngest baby played on the floor. All of them were breathing in the air without a second thought.
The sight of that smoky hut (and the many others that I have seen here since) has driven home for me a stark reality that I had never even considered before. People in developing countries are breathing in vast amounts of air pollution. Every day.
The Kitchen Killer
The other day, I read a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the topic. It says that indoor air pollution – the “kitchen killer” – is responsible for more than 1.6 million deaths every year. That’s almost 3% of the global burden of disease!
In rural Panama, women spend large portions of their day cooking indoors with their children at their side. While some wealthier families can afford to build a separate outdoor “kitchen” hut, most can only afford a single hut or shack to serve as bedroom, living area and kitchen.
Making matters worse is the Panamanian climate. With long periods of torrential rains, huts need to be as airtight as possible. The rain stays out, but the smoke stays in.
So, families live, eat and sleep in an environment filled with carbon monoxide, particulate matter and many other harmful chemicals. Children develop pneumonia, adults contract chronic respiratory diseases, and the cycle of poverty grows deeper.
It’s a terrible problem, made even worse by the sheer scale of the thing. Indoor air pollution is not just a problem in Panama. It’s in every developing country. How does somebody combat a problem that a third of the world sees as just a part of life?
A New Initiative
Several options have been presented, but few have fulfilled the three necessary ingredients to a successful initiative: practicality, sustainability and empowerment.
But there is one initiative being pursued by Dead Wheat International Foundation that is sparking interest around the globe. One that has the potential to change thousands of lives. A simple, smokeless stove that villagers can build themselves…
The stoves, designed by Dead Wheat founder Steve Bliss, are simple and effective. According to Steve, smoke is simply made up of gases and matter that weren’t consumed by the fire. Operating under this principle, the stoves restrict air intake and direct 100% of a fire’s heat up a central channel, forcing all smoke to be burned and consumed before leaving the top as heat.
An added bonus to the design is that, because all of the heat exits the stove immediately under the cooking pot, it requires less fuel and heats things faster than a regular cooking setup (three rocks with wood being fed in from the sides).
When a few Ngöbe villagers first saw the stoves in action, they were shocked. One of them said, “It’s not working properly. Where’s the smoke?” But when they saw how quickly a pot of water was brought to a boil, they all wanted one!
Dead Wheat has designed plastic molds that will each be able to produce hundreds of stoves each. The stoves can be made from locally available concrete or a concrete/mud mixture. Because the molds are collapsible and lightweight, they can be taken deep into the mountains to help villages normally untouched by aid organizations.
A Dead Wheat stove mold costs $30 to produce. Because one mold is expected to produce upwards of 250 stoves, more than 1,500 people will benefit from each one. Where else can you find such an incredible cost/benefit ratio?
There is one aspect of the smokeless stove project that has created a bit of controversy, however. While the molds will be donations to specific villages and community organizations, the stoves themselves will not. Villagers will be responsible for buying their own cement to make a stove.
While some say that it is unfair to expect villagers to pay out of pocket for something so necessary, Dead Wheat sees it from a different perspective.
By requiring people to work for and earn these stoves, Dead Wheat hopes to create ownership and empowerment. Instead of giving the Ngöbe people another handout, as so many well-intentioned aid organizations have done, they will offer them an opportunity and say, in essence, “We believe that you are smart and hard-working enough to take it the rest of the way…”
Sure, it may be controversial, but from my perspective, Dead Wheat’s method gives dignity to a people who have long since been told that they have no value.
Now here’s the cool thing. Right now, you have the opportunity to get involved. For a donation of just $30, you could be instrumental in bringing clean air and more affordable cooking to 1,500 people.
Dead Wheat is partnering with The Red Cross in 2010 to distribute 150 molds throughout Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. If Dead Wheat successfully raises the money for all 150 molds, more than 225,000 people could benefit this year alone.
So what are you waiting for? Head over to Dead Wheat’s website and make a contribution today!
It’s time that the Ngöbe people breathed clean air once more…
- Support Dead Wheat's smokeless stove initiative financially (click here). Put $30 to incredibly good use!
- Read the World Health Organization's report on indoor air pollution to become more knowledgeable about this awful injustice (click here)
- Pray that the smokeless stove initiative would be an amazing success and that it would quickly spread to other developing nations!
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.