Dominance of forest fuels poses high risk of respiratory ailments

By Indira Aryal

Kathmandu, July 16: The widespread use of traditional biomass for cooking continues to harm both public health and the environment in Nepal. Despite advancements in technology and alternative cooking methods, the reliance on traditional biomass, such as firewood, crop residues, and animal dung, remains deeply rooted in many rural communities of the country.

According to the latest census in 2021, 54 per cent of the population rely on traditional biomass, while 44 per cent use LPG as their primary cooking source.

The use of traditional biomass for cooking has severe implications for the health of individuals, particularly women and children, who are primarily responsible for cooking in Nepali households.

Traditional biomass refers to organic materials such as wood, crop residues, dung, and charcoal, that have been used for centuries as a source of energy for cooking, heating, and other domestic purposes.

The combustion of biomass releases harmful pollutants and particulate matter into the air, leading to indoor air pollution (IAP). “Prolonged exposure to such pollutants increases the risk of respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), eye irritation, and other health issues”, said Dr. Pradip Gyanwali, member-secretary at the Nepal Health Research Council.

“Due to the lack of environment-friendly houses, the pollutants produced from traditional biomass release black carbon and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are significant contributors to IAP and have detrimental effects on human health and the environment,” said Dr. Gyanwali.

“When inhaled, these pollutants can enter deep into the lungs, leading to respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems, and an increased risk of lungs diseases. Additionally, black carbon absorbs sunlight and contributes to the warming of the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change,” he added.

However, if traditional biomass can be managed and used in environment-friendly houses, it can help balance the carbon cycle and contribute to the development and growth of plants, experts stressed. Excessive levels of CO2 in the atmosphere can also contribute to climate change and have adverse impacts on ecosystems.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), IAP was responsible for over 3.2 million deaths globally in 2020, including 237,000 children under the age of five.

Similarly, IAP is the fourth leading cause of illnesses and fatalities in developing countries, primarily due to unsafe cooking and heating practices. Nevertheless, approximately 2.4 billion people, accounting for one-third of the global population, still rely on open fires or inefficient stoves that use kerosene, biomass (such as wood, cattle dung, and crop waste), and coal for cooking purposes.

Despite the known health risks associated with traditional fuels and cooking methods, their continued use is due to limited access to affordable and reliable sources of clean energy. The local availability of firewood makes it a popular choice, while transportation challenges and higher costs of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) hinder its adoption in remote regions lacking adequate infrastructure, experts said.

Dr. Sudeep Thakuri, a climate scientist and the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Mid-Western University, stated that traditional biomass has been regarded as an important renewable source of energy in Nepal but is also the main source of greenhouse gas emissions and IAP due to the lack of efficient combustion.

“If we can promote improved stoves, they can reduce indoor air pollution as well as GHG and CO2 emissions. From the perspective of climate change, GHGs have played a crucial role,” Dr. Thakuri added.

According to the research “Energy, Forest, and Indoor Air Pollution Models for Sagarmatha National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal”, exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) from burning biomass fuels like fuelwood and dung is the primary cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A spirometry test conducted on a sampled population revealed that 82 per cent had no respiratory obstruction, while 13 per cent had mild obstruction, and 5 per cent had moderate obstruction. However, the inability to perform a reversibility test made distinguishing between asthma and COPD difficult. Notably, among the population with pulmonary obstruction (18 per cent of the total), 71 per cent were women, indicating that females are at a higher risk of respiratory diseases, particularly COPD.

This higher risk is attributed to spending more time in the kitchen and being more affected by indoor air quality (IAQ). Similar studies conducted in other developing regions have also shown that women and children bear the brunt of IAQ-related issues, said Dr. Thakuri, who is also one of the team members of the research. Government officials also informed that improved stoves are being promoted as an intermediate solution, enhancing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions to address health and environmental concerns. However, the long-term goal is to transition to electric cooking.

Nawa Raj Dhakal, executive director of the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) under the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation, stated that they are promoting electric energy as an alternative source of energy for clean cooking.

Dhakal also mentioned that even the government’s Second Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in 2020 emphasized the use of renewable energy sources. According to the NDC, by 2030, the aim is to ensure that 15 per cent of the total energy demand is supplied from renewable energy sources. Additionally, the goal is to have 25 per cent of households using electric stoves by 2025, install 500,000 improved cooking stoves by 2025, and implement an additional 200,000 household biogas plants and 500 large-scale biogas plants by 2025.

By gradually reducing biomass and LPG usage and promoting improved stoves, communities can pave the way for a sustainable future, with electric cooking as the ultimate objective, he added.

The Rising Nepal

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