Indoor air pollution from biomass fuels and health condition of the women in rural villages


During my doctoral studies, I visited several rural villages in Nepal. I travelled to Kaskikot, Pokhara in January 2018. I stayed at Bhujel Gaun, a beautiful village located at an altitude of 1,700 meters. A settlement of about 40 houses, the village offered a majestic view of the Machhapuchhre.

Photo: Bhujel Gaun, Kaskikot, Pokhara

My colleagues and I conducted a research study on the use of biomass fuel in the village and its effects on the respiratory health of local women. It was mid-winter when we visited so almost all the villagers burnt open fires to keep themselves warm. Only a few households in the village use LPG stoves for cooking.

The team took interviews and anthropometric measurements. The study was conducted in the mornings and evenings, during cooking hours. The villagers were all cooperative and participated very actively in the study. In all the houses, women cook using biomass fuels, especially timber.

Photo: Biomass smoke fills a kitchen with no window as a woman cooks dinner for her family.

noticed that many households keep buffaloes. Biomass smoke is responsible for a large amount of climate active pollutants in the village. It affects respiratory and cardiovascular health; young children under five years of age are particularly susceptible. Women spend around three hours a day cooking. A few, who had to cook for their cattle as well, spent more time in front of the fire. I observed that many kitchens in the village lack good ventilation, and that women and children are directly exposed to biomass smoke. 

Photo: The ICIMOD team conducting interviews and indoor air exposure measurement.

Life in the village is not easy. Because there are no health centers near Bhujel Gaun, villagers have to travel to the city to avail health care facilities. The village only has a primary school and children commute daily to another village for attend secondary school. It is mostly the women who bear the brunt. Only the mother is involved in caring for children. The father does not have designated roles and responsibilities. The gender gap is huge and it is easily discernible. While women cook, clean, fetch water (there is no tap water in the village), and take care of cattle, men pass the time playing cards. 

Photo: A 25-year-old woman cooking food, in the morning while taking care of her four-year-old son as indoor biomass smoke exposure is being measured by equipment installed by the ICIMOD team

My stay in the village made me realize that most women in Nepal remained confined within the four walls of the house, waking up to a day full of chores that starts in a smoke-filled kitchen in the morning and ends in the same smoke-filled kitchen at night. They face a life of hardship, have no decision-making powers, and are exposed to many health problems. I am writing from my experience in Bhujl Gaun, but the sad fact is that this is the case in most villages throughout Nepal and the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.

Rasmila Kawan