How To Really Help Women of Afghanistan

How To Really Help Women of Afghanistan

In a recent article in The Economist, the tragic environmental circumstance of the Afghan people is described in stark statistical terms. Forest cover of its land mass has virtually disappeared in the last decades, down from 3% in 1980 (already a very small proportion) to less than .5% currently. Nearly all Afghans, with the exception of a small urban wealthy population, depend entirely on firewood for both heating and cooking fuel. Of course, the situation poses grave dangers of hillside erosion, additional periods of drought and the resultant additional poverty – a vicious cycle. But, in addition, as urgently needed food is trucked in, how will Afghan people make use of wheat if they do not have a means to make it into bread or other edible foods? The small and ever decreasing amount of wood available in local bazaars will be prohibitively expensive for many, and, in The Economist’s view, even that will be totally exhausted by 2005.

Afghanistan is near the top of the list of some 30 countries with the world’s highest recorded insolation, or amount of sunlight, per day, and thus eminently suitable for solar cooking, pasteurization, and heating of water. Large scale projects to promote the use of solar cooking devices have been mounted in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan for nearly 20 years, with substantial success, by a British non-governmental organization called SERVE. That organization made solar box cookers from left over scrap materials, including cases which brought armaments into the country. At one point, before the Taliban takeover, SERVE had even trucked loads of solar cookers into Kabul, selling them off the truck to crowds so eager to buy that near riots occurred. SERVE is a religious based organization but was among the last to be expelled by the Taliban (New York Times, September 1, 2001, p.A3). As a small NGO, they are unable to meet the huge demand foreseen in the camps and within Afghanistan itself currently, though they are eager to cooperate in any such effort.

What is solar cooking anyway? Put simply, the sun’s energy is captured by devices which maximum its heat for transfer to a black cooking vessel. Devices are of many and varied types, from low cost folded cardboard cookers (resembling small sized tanning booths), to wood or plastic boxes with glass covers and reflectors to capture sunlight, to round concave shiny reflectors which concentrate sunlight on an overhead pot. Cost vary from very inexpensive, a few dollars for the cardboard version, to hundreds or even thousands of dollar for large concentrator models. Cookers are available commercially in many parts of the world for individual households or for larger scale institutional or community use.

Who uses these devices? In the United States, across the Southwest to California, a substantial number of solar cooker users are found, with the highest concentration found probably in Sacramento, home of Solar Cookers International, the principal non-governmental organization in this arena. Founded in l987, SCI currently runs programs in two refugee camps in Kenya and a community based project in Zimbabwe. The organization has sponsored three international conferences, in Stockton, California (1992), in San Jose, Costa Rica(1995), and in Coimbatore, India (1998), bringing together enthusiasts and promoters from around the world to share their knowledge and experiences. In other parts of the world, large projects have been mounted by governments or by organizations. Both India and China have large publicly subsidized programs, Rotary International has sponsored programs in six African nations and more recently in Turkey; many projects are found in Central and Latin America which has a thriving regional network of solar cooking promoters who sponsor an annual Fiesta del Sol. The German government is mounting a large project in South Africa, as part of its development aid. Small or large projects can be found around the globe; relatively little, however, is known about the overall results of these projects. Currently, a "state of the art of solar cooking" project is underway to pull together information about the projects mentioned and the many others about which even less is known.

Individuals associated with SCI, like many other Americans, have become eager to provide assistance to the people of Afghanistan, and are convinced that solar cooking would be both helpful and thankfully received. Numerous studies on fuelwood saving made possible by solar use suggest that more than half of usual fuelwood consumption can be saved. In the emergency situation presented in Afghanistan currently, that proportion would surely be higher.

While just being able to cook, and thus eat, is a substantial benefit, solar usage has other extremely important impacts. Health data suggest that the inhalation of smoke, largely from cooking, (a crucial called "indoor air pollution" or IAP) is responsible for approximately 6% of all deaths worldwide. The victims are principally women (who stand closest to the stove during maximum pollution time – cooking) and their babies, whom they keep near them (Ezzati, Magjid and Dan Kammen, 2001 "Quantifying the effects of exposure to indoor air pollution from biomass combustion on acute respiratory infections in developing countries." Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 109, no. 5, May 2001). Solar cooking, of course, eliminates much of IAP. Solar cooking devices can also be used to render polluted water safe for drinking by easily and fairly quickly killing all bacteria in the water. A large project testing this potential is underway in Tanzania, positing that infant diarrhea, major killer of babies, can be reduced by 30% or more through the use of solar water pasteurization methods. While solar cooking does not heat the house, necessary in Afghan winters, fuel saved by solar cooking could then be turned to that purpose.

Media attention has focused on the inequities of life for the women of Afghanistan, and both legislative measures and feminist pressures are strongly urging that women be included in all plans for the future of that nation. Freeing women from the terrible burden of the last years, thus allowing their education, political participation, economic opportunity, and civil/human rights is crucial to the future of the country, but those reforms will occur over time, and on the calendar of Afghans, women and men alike. The problem posed in this document is an immediate and extremely pressing issue, to be addressed NOW.

Who will take up this challenge? A substantial corps of individuals is prepared to provide technical assistance in planning large scale distribution of cookers to families, whose principal cooks need to be trained in solar usage, a crucial part of the transfer of any technology but perhaps even more important when that concerns something so culturally sensitive as food. Utilizing existing networks of women, that can, however, be done efficiently in a 1-2 day workshop, after which the new users are visited in their homes to ensure their mastery of this new way to cook. The most enthusiastic among the new users can then be trained to be the trainers of others, beginning a self perpetuating and spreading technology transfer, which requires principally logistical support, such as local manufacture of cookers, troubleshooting help, servicing the devices over time, etc., all activities best left to the market place. (Small or large scale entrepreneurs may well require venture capital loans to start such endeavors). In the meantime, to get this assistance moving quickly, the NGO community should carry the technology transfer load until knowledge of solar cooking devices and their advantages spreads and thus builds market demand.

A coalition of organizations with knowledge of and commitment to solar cooking can be quickly convened. Substantial funding will be required, well beyond the capability of any of the present groups. This short summary of the situation is an urgent plea for attention and for advice as to how to proceed to make this important assistance available to the world’s poorest people, facing war, winter, political instability, and now starvation. We can help – we must!

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