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Smoke kills children in Indonesia

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates unsafe cooking conditions are the fourth greatest threat to health in developing nations.


Across the world, around 3 billion people prepare their meals over open fires or stoves using charcoal, wood or animal waste for fuel. Often living in small dwellings with inadequate ventilation, their exposure to smoke leads to a range of chronic illnesses. Around 1.9 million people die each year from illnesses such as pneumonia, lung cancer or tuberculosis, where the inhalation of smoke is the underlying cause. Women, girls and children are particularly vulnerable, spending long hours in the home while food is being prepared.

In Indonesia, the WHO reports that as many as 40,000 children die each year of pneumonia, which accounts for a fifth of all child deaths. Exposure to smoke from cooking stoves is thought to double a child’s risk of contracting pneumonia. In one under-developed region of the country, IRIN reports on a traditional practice which is making matters even worse.

In Nusa Tenggara Timur, rates of child mortality are double the national average (at 80 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 44 for the country as a whole).  Experts blame exposure to smoke. In this region, mothers and newborns are confined to a grass hut (called an “umebubu”) for 40 days after the delivery. The huts provide no ventilation and have a wood-fire inside. The resulting exposure to smoke is particularly dangerous for a child in their first year of life.

According to the Indonesian government, half of the province’s population have symptoms of acute respiratory illness (compared to a quarter of people nationally). The government is trying to educate people about the risks of cooking in unventilated rooms. However, it is not an easy problem to address. Even if communities give up the practice of “umebube”, many families live in tiny houses with low ceilings and just one room. Changing lifestyles is therefore a huge challenge.

Some agencies are trying to promote houses which have improved ventilation. Other organisations, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, are focusing on new stove technologies. As well as the benefits to health, clean stoves reduce the need for communities to cut down trees for firewood. Since deforestation is a key issue for Indonesia, maybe the country’s government should join other nations in becoming a member of this Alliance.

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