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A Thought for the Season on Serendipity from Disaster


Everybody is busily about something this time of year.  I’m thinking one of the toughest things to see is a way forward for people who may need to change a habit or a practice, but who feel pretty satisfied with continuing doing familiar things in familiar ways.  So here’s my thought for a timely helping hand that might—just might—be welcome.

[Edit note: This update adds links and information from the paragraph beginning “Is this worth putting into practice?”  The blog remains brief.]

It’s the idea of a silver lining.  Actually, a silver lining in situations that are widespread disasters for the people involved.  The idea is that at the moment things really fall apart—I’m thinking of recognized natural events such as major earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, storms—there may be an opportunity to be genuinely helpful in the moment in a way that combines disaster relief and recovery with widespread ongoing better health.

The possible connector in my mind between disaster and health is to see how to get people to adopt cheaper, better ways to use fire in their cooking stoves.  Indeed, you say.  The thought on serendipity runs like this… a whole region has been flattened.  People are hungry and have no way to cook food, but there’s a lot of fuel around from the aftermath of the natural disaster.  So give every family in the wrecked region a new stove that offers better burning for cooking.  The example of good cooking with less smoke and fuel can help other people get ideas.

The key is that people need to be able to prepare hot food, and due to their situation, they’ll cook with what they can get—especially if it’s cheap or given.  The situation itself overwhelms the perfectly usual human resistance to change on any topic surrounded by tradition and habit.

Is this worth putting into practice?  Well, about half of humanity—some three billion people—use cooking fires.  That has global effects.  For an overview, take a look at Hearth Surgery, by Burkhard Bilger, on cooking stoves, smoke impact research, and local resistance in The New Yorker for December 21, 2009 (abstract at NewYorker/Bilger).  Bilger notes that smoke is the sixth leading cause of death in several African countries.  See research published by the US National Institutes of Health linking cooking smoke, health, and climate change (NIH, EHP. NIH, NIH_Lancet_Climate_Change).  Workers in Oregon at Aprovecho Research Center and its cooking stove Lab pioneered global cooking smoke research.  In Colorado, the firm Envirofit International carries out commercial research and sales on traditionally fired cooking stoves.

We’ve learned that indoor smoke makes life harder by raising the incidence and severity of pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, cataracts, cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, possibly tuberculosis—that adds up, as researched by Kirk Smith (Berkeley) and reported by TheAustralian/IndiasCookers and Worldwatch, which see 1.5+ million annual global smoke deaths by extrapolating the 480,000+ occurring yearly in India.  Better stoves could save 82,000 lives yearly in India, which implies saving more than 255,000 lives globally—mostly children under 5, and their mothers, as they practice traditional daily cooking.

Crucial side note—beyond health effects, every three fires equal a car’s yearly carbon dioxide output, plus up to 2,000 grams of soot—and soot’s effect exceeds carbon dioxide almost 700 times, gram for gram.  Not so good for global climate change.  But to focus on health effects reported by Bilger…

The top response was for pneumonia.  Children living around the least smoky fires had a 65 to 85 percent lower incidence of pneumonia than children around the smokiest fires.  Upshot—new stoves for half of humanity, plus a cut in global climate effects for us all, are a public health bonanza.

A bonanza indeed, but getting there might depend on changes enabled by region-wide natural disasters.  How so?  Well, usually change is slow—people don’t like getting out on a limb, or not alone anyhow, even if the limb is an improvement.  Enter the regional disaster scenario.  A region-wide scenario removes the isolation that holds back making a change in a social habit.

It may be that this is all conjecture based on, well, smoking something.  But maybe not.  Beyond the links to Bilger and the other resources, take a good look at TeleHelp to see disaster notes by Randy Roberson, a seasoned disaster logistics worker and telemedicine thought leader with lessons learned for the US.  We know in the US that disaster accelerates change.  Consider the massive rebuild and reform impacting New Orleans schools, homes, river control, and Louisiana healthcare from 2006+.  These all started because Hurricane Katrina came to town in late 2005.

So maybe there’s some good in a Katrina moment, here in our own way, city by city, and also around the world for the three billion who need a cooking stove that doesn’t kill and pollute.  And in our own lives and polity, maybe we can come to see more generally how to reap benefits from fresh thinking without relying on a disaster to kick us into gear.  That would be an excellent gift for this season of promise and possibility as we enter 2010.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/01/06 11:44 am

    Well David you have hit the nail on the head, with a jackhammer. So many social and environmental ills comes from the huge numbers who cook over fires. Having performed humanitarian needs assessments in numerous developing countries over the past 13 years, I can tell you first hand that TB, pneumonia and other lung related disorders are at – if not close to – the top the list of commonly presented medical challenges in every country I have worked in.

    I have been monitoring the success of several other groups who have been deploying solar resources to meet these needs in places where that is an appropriate technology. These include small individual family solar ovens (see example all the way up to village solar bakeries such as those sponsored by numerous Rotary Clubs (see

    Obviously, solar doesn’t work well in all areas, but it is another tool in an arsenal that needs to continue to grow on the global scene. I AGREE COMPLETELY that integration of such resources at a time of disaster makes for a very easy and welcome point of integration. We have done much the same with water purification projects following disasters (contaminated water also a leading killer).

    This approach can make a huge difference. It all comes down to where to find the funding to make this technological integration possible. The world needs more great minds like yours, attached to big hearts and quite frankly, wallets.

    Thanks for sharing the concepts. Hopefully more will take this to heart and find ways to help.

  2. David Morf permalink
    2010/01/07 12:44 am

    Randy, thanks for your most informative comment. I’m very happy your experience lends credence to leveraging disasters by introducing new cooking stoves to stricken families over a wide area in order to facilitate the social transition away from traditional open fires to directly benefit the families and the global climate. I’m hoping agencies and NGOs can support funding targeted tasks that benefit the planet while also being directly valuable to the disaster region itself–getting two hits for one swing seems a good use of money and effort! And congratulations Randy with your doc-in-a-box and bring-em-back-pack as discussed on your TeleHelp site as cited in the post — it’s great to see you’ve succeeded in getting them into the field together with village water purification mini-plants where they can save lives. Way to go.

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