Planet Duke: Cooking Up a Change in India

March 3, 2015

High in the foothills of the Himalayas, after an hourslong trek up the hillside, Lisa Philippone and her fellow researchers finally reached the village. “It was just so crazy because you’re hiking, it’s so steep, it’s pouring rain all over us, and we get to the top and this little old lady is there, and she’s cooking on her stove,” remembers Philippone, a master’s student in the Duke Global Health Institute. She spent five months in Uttarakhand, India, last summer bringing new cookstoves to households.

Around 40 percent of households globally depend on traditional cookstoves to heat their homes and cook their meals. Smoke from traditional wood, coal, and dung-burning cookstoves can affect the health of the entire household negatively. Cooks, typically women and children, breathe in the harmful fumes, acquiring respiratory illness that can lead to death. Each year, more than 4 million people throughout the world die because of household air pollution.

Since 2011, the Duke Household Energy and Health Initiative has been surveying and introducing improved cookstoves to rural villages in India. The project is an attempt to discourage chopping trees for firewood and to reduce black carbon emissions harmful to both the environment and human health.

In 2011, Subhrendu Pattanayak, a professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Sanford School of Public Policy, created an interdepartmental team, pooling researchers from the Duke Medical Center, the Duke Global Health Institute, and the Nicholas School. “Problems like this, I don’t think, can actually be solved unless groups are willing to work together across disciplines and across boundaries,” says Jessica Lewis, the project coordinator and a Nicholas School Ph.D. student.

In 2012, the team surveyed 1,000 households in Uttarakhand and came up with two options: an electric stove and a biomass-burning stove. Then, in 2013, they offered around 775 households the improved cookstoves, along with a government-subsidized rebate if they actually used the new stove. They also led an educational campaign about the health impacts of different types of cookstoves.

The first part of the pilot project was successful: About half the families in Uttarakhand adopted a new stove. The typical adoption rate of environmental health technologies, such as bed nets, toilets, and other cookstoves, is usually between 5 and 8 percent.

Now that families in Uttarakhand are using the improved cookstoves, Duke will do more research on how these new stoves will affect the reduction of household air pollution. Lewis returned to India in January to continue her research and involvement with the initiative. “Looking at a blank drawing board and thinking [about] how we can design something that has the greatest potential for change is really why I’m here.”

Philippone remembers the little old lady she encountered and how the new stove changed her life. “She was so thankful to see us, and she cooked tea on the stove and talked about it,” she says. “Every single household we went to offered to make us tea on the stove.”

By the Numbers

67 % of households in India use traditional biomass fuels.

More than 4 million premature deaths per year are attributed to household air pollution.

Duke collaborates with 10 organizations in India.

The initiative has seen a 90% decrease in firewood use in households that have the improved cookstove.

Sources: W.H.O., dukeenergyhealth.org

  • Madeline Taylor is an intern. She is a sophomore involved in the arts on Duke's campus.