Gendered Sights and Health Issues in the Paradigm of Biofuel in Sri Lanka

Gendered Sights and Health Issues in the Paradigm of Biofuel in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, biofuels are the primary source of energy and account for nearly 66% of the annual energy consumed. Annually nearly 10 million tons of wood alone, worth nearly 440 million US$, are consumed. Biomass fuel is extremely important for
its contribution as a source of cooking energy, and hence to food security, an area in which the implications on nutrition and health can be contextualised.

Despite the recent expansion in the use of alternative energy sources such as hydroelectricity, natural gas and paraffin, biomass remains the most popular energy source in Sri Lanka.The household sector consumes nearly 81% of the biomass energy used in Sri Lanka. About 98% of rural households, 80% of urban dwellers, and 99% of plantation dwellers depend on biomass for cooking. Due to the increasing population, depletion of supply sources, and socioeconomic trends; the use of residues, softwood, and small twigs and trimmings has been increasing. A crucial feature is the genderspecific expectations embedded in the biofuel cycle. From gathering to combustion, women’s occupations in the three domains as gatherers, carriers, and end-users have resulted in a genderimbalanced system. The biofuel cycle as a whole has become an important source of difficulty, stress and physical discomfort for women.

The economic advantages of using biomass have undoubtedly been attractive, especially for those women who live below the poverty line and must manage their households on limited incomes. But is it fair to neglect the costs involved in the whole system, and the possible health repercussions that millions of gatherers, carriers and users are subjected to over the course of daily life, and which both families and states eventually pay for? Within this context; how the various spheres in the whole cycle are interconnected, which social sectors are at the centre of the cycle, and what health issues reoccur in the system, are all important policy-related questions.

The biofuel cycle comprises of three spheres: (1) production; (2) the flow system; and (3) the indoor sphere where combustion takes place. Health repercussions reported by the respondents emerge due to their exposure, exhaustion and subjection to the biofuel cycle. Problems faced by women as biomass providers and users in this cycle stem partly from the patriarchal social system, where men’s power of control over sources of supply, income and women’s labour is widely exercised. The work and the responsibilities of biomass production, and its use in the reproductive domain, have created a stereotypical injustice.

Self-Reported Morbidity

In this study, self-reported morbidity was used as an indicator of health problems. 720 households were chosen for the field survey and any deterioration in health as reported by the members of the 720 households has been recorded. Research results revealed that in each of the three spheres, health risks and the probability of health deterioration are high. Specific self-reported morbidity issues are associated with the nature of the work involved and the workplace environment for each sphere (see Table 1).

Table 1. Health problems reported by at least 60% of households
Sphere Respondents Self-reported morbidity
Procuring Women
(about 8% men)
Skin irritation
Allergic reactions
Snake bites
Fungal infections
Pest attacks
(Head loading)
Women Repetitive strain injuries
Stiff neck
Chest pains
Combustion Women Coughing
Acute respiratory infections
Upper respiratory
Skin irritation


Health Issues in the Outdoor Spheres

In this part of the cycle, various activities such as harvesting, cross-cutting, gathering, trimming, de-barking, and bundling of woody materials are performed at various locations, depending on users’ access and rights to procure wood fuel (FAO,1999; Wickramasinghe, 2001a).

In gathering and carrying, women are exposed to the sun, to rain and to humid conditions. The activities that are performed tend to cause injuries, cuts, bruises, sprains, and in some cases fractures where there are incidents of falling while pulling wood and climbing. It has been found that gatherers are subjected to snake bites, fungal infections and pests while collecting deadwood from the fields. They are exposed to harmful chemicals from fields sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, while gathering and transporting the wood. Long hours of cooking increase the chances of toxic and harmful chemicals entering the body. Skin irritation and allergic reactions are reported as consequences of this exposure, contact and subjection of the gatherers to hostile conditions. About 68% of the households reported that between two and three hours on average, excluding travel time, is spent in collecting one headload (a bundle of wood), and that this activity is often repeated three times a week.

Nearly 80% of respondents mentioned headloading as one of the most exhausting tasks in the system. Immediate health consequences are fatigue, headaches, and pains in the joints and chest. The elderly believe headloading to be the most crucial single factor causing repetitive strain injuries, and say it causes serious physical suffering. The headloading of wood several times a week over a period of more than 30 years, without having long breaks other than during the late stages of pregnancy and immediately after child delivery has weakened the joints, affected backs and also weakened the resistance to infections. For instance, the chances of getting respiratory infections, bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases are high among those who are engaged in such exhaustive tasks over a period. This whole scenario points to the direct and immediate consequences of these tasks in risk-prone environments, and their long term and cumulative consequences for health.

The Combustion Sphere

Biomass combustion within a confined space in the household interior also has serious health implications. Exposure to hazardous outputs, including particulates, causes serious health problems. Respondents are often exposed six to eight hours a day, and even longer during peak seasons in the agriculture cycle, rainy seasons, and in seasons where grains are stored above kitchen hearths for smoke-drying. The most common incidents of self-reported morbidity of those exposed and subjected to heat, flame and smoke, fall into four main categories (see Table 2).

Table 2. Self-reported health problems experienced by biomass users in cooking
Problem Reporting
Respiratory problems
• Coughing
• Chest tightness
• Bronchitis
• Wheezing and asthma
• Acute respiratory infection (ARI)
• Pneumonia
• Sneezing
• Respiratory tract irritation
Nausea, loss of appetite for food All
Headaches and sinus problems All
Itching eyes, eye irritation, burning and stinging of eyes All
Backache and fatigue 60%
Dizziness and lethargy 70%
Skin irritation 80%
Burns 40%
Menstrual disorders 20%
Pregnancy complications 18%
Low birth weight of offspring 6%


The first and most widely reported problems are associated with complaints related to the respiratory tract, ranging from coughs to asthma. Second is nausea and loss of appetite for food; followed by headaches and sinus, and various eye problems. As explained by a group of women “Cooking in these small kitchens is a miracle, it is like involuntary smoking, we inhale all the pollutants, and live in an aroma and polluted space, and during rainy seasons it is like working in smoke chambers”.

The area affected by combustion is partly determined by the space and relative location of the cooking hearth. 60% use three-stone hearths and of these 40% also have mud spread hearths, prepared by women, with one side opening to enable wood to be inserted. 8% of those who have mud spread hearths do have improved cook stoves. However three-stone hearths are used by 88% of the households when large scale cooking is needed, meaning that the spreading of heat, smoke and flames over a wide area is somewhat unavoidable.

Only in 28% of cases did kitchens have chimneys. Only about 32% have windows for ventilation, so the possibility of carbon monoxide stagnation is high in about 68% of cases. About 48% of the households have hearths on elevated surfaces and the remaining 52% have hearths on the kitchen floor. The two major categories of harmful outputs produced during combustion are (1) energy and heat; and (2) waste and pollutants; primarily smoke consisting of harmful gases, liquids and particulates. Interestingly, many of the outputs are actually seen by households as useful. Flame, heat, smoke, ash and soot generated during combustion, are by-products used by the households to repel and control pests, dry excess food, perform rituals, etc. None of the households depend solely on only one type of biomass or good quality woody segments. The interior conditions of the indoor workplace vary greatly; no standard type of stove/hearth is used; and the position of the hearths in the kitchen space varies. So the time spent in cooking and related work will vary as well. Occupational hazards are reported to be most serious during the rainy seasons, both in outdoor and indoor workplaces, since biomass with relatively high moisture content is gathered, headloaded and burned. In some cases there is exposure to toxic gases where wood with high latex contents such as Eucalyptus, and Pinus are burnt. Exposure to toxic output increases when burning becomes difficult.

Women perceive the whole system as one that reduces their capacity to lead a normal life. It was explained that, “Heat itself is a threat to their own health. Exposure to heat daily for several hours and blowing the hearth to strengthen the flame, burns energy. And this exposure turns blood into water”. Although no scientific testing has been done, women believe that continuous exposure to indoor air pollution will result in leukaemia and end with their death.

Ideological Grounds that Undermine Health

Despite every single household covered in this study having negative experiences with the biofuel cycle, awareness and concern at the policy level are poor. Two questions demand an answer. Firstly, why have these detrimental effects related to the tri-sphere biofuel cycle not received due attention? Secondly, are these problems marginalised due to the fact that this most vulnerable group – poor women – are themselves a marginalised group, and ideologically, women do not have equal status?

The allocation of labour and the division of responsibilities pertaining to the supply and combustion of biomass between men and women are determined by the placement of biofuel in the realm of household wellbeing – for which, according to the established ideology, women are responsible. The norm regarding cost-free procurability is conditioned by two other factors: first, the biomass fuel cycle is seen as a contribution to domestic welfare, rather than to commodity production; and second, biofuel cycle activities are designated as one of the unpaid household chores. Self-collection for household use, and combustion for family cooking, have conveniently made it possible to ignore the effects on workplace environments. In the rural household sector every activity is dominated by women’s labour. The greater the distance from the households to the gathering locations, the less men assist. The lowest participation by men is noted in gathering deadwood, and therefore their vulnerability to risks is low.

In all the villages covered in the survey, morbidity rates were only high among women, and men had no complaints other than occasional injuries. The common problems reported by women, including repetitive strain injuries, respiratory problems, nausea, headaches, itching eyes, and also skin irritations, can be attributed to their repeated engagement in the biofuel cycle. The injustice is the placement of biofuel cycle activities within women’s conventional domain on the basis of socially fixed stereotypes, which ignores their vulnerability (Wickramasinghe, 2001b).

Matters requiring policy attention are not confined to energy conservation measures. A multidisciplinary approach involving housing interventions, including construction designs, chimneys to draw smoke, proper indoor ventilation, space planning and cooking arrangements, is urgently needed. For future planning, Sri Lanka is in need of gender-disaggregated data on procurement, transportation, combustion, and health issues associated with the whole biofuels cycle. Local action agendas through community participation should be a national priority since biofuel will remain the most common and widely used energy source in domestic cooking. The morbidity problems reported by women whose health is interlocked with the trisphere biofuel cycle should be a priority area.

  • FAO, (1999) “Gender aspects of woodfuel flows in Sri Lanka: A
    case study in Kandy District”, RWEDP, Field Document No. 55,
    FAO, Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Wickramasinghe, Anoja. (2001a) “Gender aspects of woodfuel
    flows in Sri Lanka: A case study in Kandy District”, in
    Wickramasinghe, Anoja. & Bhattarai, Tara. N. (eds.) Wood energy
    supply system, Trade and gender in Sri Lanka: National Expert
    Consultation, RWEDP, FAO, Bangkok, Thailand, pp. 142-168.
  • Wickramasinghe, Anoja. (2001b) “Gender sights and health
    issues in the paradigm of biofuel in Sri Lanka”, A paper
    presented at the Seminar on Biofuel, Pollution and Health, Indira
    Gandhi Institute of Development Research, 6-7th January,
    Mumbai, India.

About the Author

Anoja Wickramasinghe is a Professor and Head of Geography at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and Coordinator of the Collaborative Regional Research Network in South Asia (CORRENSA). Her research has focused on Environment, Forestry, Rural Development, Indigenous Knowledge, Common Property Management, Community Development, Wood Energy, and Women. She is the author of several books in these areas: Deforestation, Women and Forestry (International Books, 1994); People and the Forest: Management of the Adam’s Peak Wilderness (Sri Lanka Forest Department); Land and Forestry: Women’s Local Resourcebased Occupations for Sustainable Survival in South Asia (CORRENSA, 1997); Development Issues Across Regions: Women, Land and Forestry (CORRENSA, 1997); and the author of Gender Aspects of Woodfuel Flows in Sri Lanka: A Case Study in Kandy District, Field Document No. 55, 1999, FAO/RWEDP in Asia, Bangkok. Anoja is also a trainer on participatory planning, gender analysis and environmental management.

For more information, please contact: Anoja Wickramasinghe, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka; Tel: +94.(0)8.288.301, Fax: +94.(0)8.232.516, Email:

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