Lessons of safe sanitation for clean cookstoves

Not a day of my work on this energy poverty feature has passed without reflection on the extraordinary parallels between the struggle to introduce safe sanitation in developing countries and the upgrading of traditional cookstoves, a subject of active debate at the Rio+20 conference.

Both objectives suffer by their inextricable pairing with a more glamorous big sister. Sanitation became so much the Cinderella of the “water and sanitation” sector that some specialist development agencies renamed their programmes as “sanitation and water.”

The goal of universal access to modern energy embraces both electricity and cooking. Whilst everyone can relate to a solar panel bringing light to enable children to do their homework, few people in richer countries have a ready grasp of how food is prepared in poor households.

Failure in either of these areas of basic human development has serious health consequences for women and children – through infection from unsafe hygiene practices or through smoke inhalation from unsafe cooking stoves. Young girls will remain at risk of abuse in the darkness of streets and fields.

Both sectors were inexplicably excluded from the Millennium Development Goals (the omission of sanitation was remedied in 2002 as an afterthought).

There are further similarities in the pattern of interventions to tackle the two problems. The early history of improved sanitation for rural households in the 1990s was dominated by government construction of latrines, either at no cost or heavily subsidised.

A village tour of these edifices, now either derelict or converted for uses unrelated to their purpose, is a popular feature of the education of aid agency staff. Recent months have seen a flow of new research suggesting that modern cookstoves are suffering a similar fate.

The sanitation experts then turned their attention to “market solutions.” Teach people how safe hygiene and sanitation improves their lives and they will allocate monetary value accordingly. Train local people in the skills of masonry and latrine construction. Put sanitation into the local economy.

This is just about where we’ve reached with clean cookstove interventions. Everyone wants a market-based solution.

Market-based development of safe sanitation is effective but the pace has been too slow in relation to the need. There remain affordability problems for the poorest of the poor and the approach doesn’t really work in urban slums. New ideas continue to wax and wane as the learning process continues.

The total number of people who lack safe sanitation has barely changed in 20 years and the MDG is a lost cause. At 2.5 billion this number is worryingly similar to that generally quoted as using traditional stoves.

This salutary sanitation tale explains why I’ve been reluctant to get caught up in the more gung-ho yes-we-can attitudes of the Sustainable Energy For All initiative, welcome as they are within our dour industry. Changing people’s lives in unfamiliar cultures, however robust the motive, just isn’t straightforward.

Sanitation and cooking are both issues in which women are the key agents and we can surely learn from this. If the roles of women as implementers, users and ultimate economic beneficiaries are not paramount in designing cookstove programmes, success will be elusive.

The signs are that this gender dimension of the universal access goal has had a good airing at Rio+20. The new streamlined UN Women seems to concentrate its messaging more effectively and its executive director, Michelle Bachelet, has been everywhere.

She spoke about the role of women in energy access in the interactive Rio+20 Social on Tuesday and then led one of the sessions in yesterday’s High-level side event on Sustainable Energy for All. She observed that:

Providing (women) with access to sustainable energy would expand their freedom and opportunities for education and paid employment, and reduce poverty

So, Michelle Bachelet gets it; we know that Hillary Clinton gets it and we know also that Kandeh Yumkella, co-chair of the High-level Group on Sustainable Energy For All wastes no opportunity to stress the importance of gender issues.

The unspoken question is whether the other 30 men on the High-level Group get it on gender. And the 30 women on the Group? Well, actually there are only 4.

This uncharacteristic UN blunder, together with the dominant corporate representation, has prompted Oxfam, Christian Aid and ActionAid to join an NGO petition in protest at the governance structure.

Women’s interests would be better served with these key agencies fully behind the initiative. The petition deserves a serious response, rather than the current calculated silence.

Ban Ki-moon’s phrase about sustainable energy being the golden thread that connects development, social inclusion and environmental protection has had a generous hearing throughout the week. Perhaps he could now work on an adaptation which recognises that women should be our guides to this dream of sustainable energy for all.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK