Every Wednesday, Ethel Balani and her fellow volunteers in Chilembwe Village, Thyolo, walk door-to-door to encourage people with persistent coughs to get screened for tuberculosis (TB). However, the long walks to improve TB testing expose a silent killer that hides in windowless kitchens prevalent across the hills where many cook using sticks from tea plantations.
“Women and children endure endless coughs. They sometimes come for the spit test, thinking they have TB as smoke from burning firewood hurts their health. Women sneeze and rub red eyes as they blow open fires, exposing children to pneumonia,” she says.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), pneumonia is the single largest killer of children—causing about 1.4 million deaths globally and 1 000 locally.
The respiratory infection flourishes in poorly ventilated, smoky confinements.
“Every day, we endanger our health and children making meals for our families. Burning firewood silently takes away trees and lives,” says Balani.
Indoor air pollution caused by cooking using firewood and charcoal threatens the health of 95 percent of children globally, WHO reports.
Up to 98 percent of households in Malawi use this fuel for cooking as only 10 percent of the population has electricity.
But the trees reduced to ash absorb carbon emissions, slowing global warming or climate change.
Climate and health
Clean cooking energy makes air cleaner and the planet safer for all, shows a WHO study launched in December at the global climate talks in Poland.
The study indicates that taking bold climate action now would save a million lives by 2050 and the gains of improved health would be twice as high as the economic costs of mitigating global warming and fighting air pollution.
Not just the planet would benefit from reductions in air pollution. WHO links over a quarter of deaths of children under five with environmental risks.
“The Paris Agreement is potentially the strongest health agreement of this century,” says WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus. “The evidence is clear that climate change is already having a serious impact on human lives and health. It threatens the basic elements we all need for good health—clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter—and will undermine decades of progress in global health.”
Polluted air causes almost seven million deaths a year worldwide. However, the 2018 Energy Progress Report shows that about three billion people—40 percent of the world’s population—suffer devastating risks of using charcoal, firewood, coal and kerosene for cooking.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) envision everyone using clean, affordable, sustainable energy by 2030, but the report by WHO, UN Sustainable Energy for All and World Bank shows the world is likely to miss the deadline.
The cutbacks on polluting fuels are slowest in the cooking and transport sectors.
“The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself. When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost,” says Dr Maria Neira, the director of public health, environmental and social determinants of health at WHO.
The Ministry of Health reports that almost 13 000 people died of diseases fuelled by cooking-related indoor air pollution in 2015, representing three deaths every two hours.
The public health crisis made worse by frequent blackouts and low uptake of electricity.
“Tackling climate change and health at the same time is a win-win deal. You save trees, lives and the planet. Unfortunately, many people don’t care about climate change because both the dangers and benefits of environmental issues are not felt instantly, “says director of environmental affairs Tawonga Mbale.
Backing the switch to low-carbon energy sources, the country has embraced the Clean Cooking Alliance’s ambitious targets to ensure that by 2020, two million people use cookstoves that consume less firewood and emit far less smoke than traditional mbaula.
Energy activists say this constitutes just a first step to save trees and make cooking less toxic. They want tax breaks to make gas affordable.
But director of energy Joseph Kalowekamo states: “Removing duty and value-added tax will not lower gas prices unless laws change to remove levies on the commodity.”
Devine Matale, from Renewable Energy Network in Malawi (Renama), finds it ironic that gas prices are three times lower in South Africa and twice cheaper in Zimbabwe.
He states: “The findings are a wake-up call. We need to step up the uptake of clean cooking energy to reduce climate change and health problems.
“Many people continue to use charcoal and firewood because alternative energy is more costly and electricity remains unreliable and inaccessible to many people. This puts lives, forests and our world under threat.”
Dependence on firewood and charcoal puts humanity at risk in treeless stretches most vulnerable to extreme weather shocks, including floods and drought.
In Mwalija Village along the Shire River in Chikwawa, women walk long distances fetching firewood and floods disrupt livelihoods every year.
The locals still remember the 2015 floods, which hit 1.1 million people, displaced 230 000 and killed 176 in 15 districts.
He said: “Almost every year, Shire causes untold agony. There are no trees to stop floodwater. In 2015, the floods destroyed homes and latrines, displacing people who took refuge at an overcrowded primary school where cholera erupted. This only worsens the suffering of affected people and exerts pressure on overwhelmed hospitals.” n