Nearly 2.6 billion people, around half of the world's population, most of them in Africa, Asia and central and south America, rely on biomass fuels, such as wood, charcoal or kerosene, to cook food, heat and light their houses.
In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 85 per cent of the population (around 900 million people) rely on kerosene or biomass for cooking. These fuels are often cheaper and more accessible than clean and modern energy sources such as electricity and gas in low and middle-income nations. However, they come at a high cost to human health.
Burning biomass for cooking creates high levels of household air pollution that individuals living in the household inevitably inhale. This contributes to over two million premature deaths every year, mainly from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases like lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, and pneumonia in kids.
In high-income countries, the inability to afford clean household energy has worsened people's mental health. A recent study in the United Kingdom revealed that people who couldn't afford to heat their houses had poorer mental health than those who could, which manifested in lower levels of life satisfaction.
However, there's been little research into how a lack of access to clean energy for cooking affects one's mental being in low and middle-income countries. To address that knowledge gap, The World Economic Forum surveyed over 1,100 women who were their households' main cooks and lived in urbanising communities in Kenya, Cameroon and Ghana.
Women's Mental Health Suffers From Using Biomass
The WEF surmised that women's mental health might be more likely to suffer from using biomass fuels than men's as they are traditionally in charge of preparing and cooking meals in these countries.
The study noted that women cooking primarily with charcoal and wood had approximately 50 per cent higher odds of likely depression than those cooking with gas. It also found that women who had sustained two or more cooking-related burns during the previous year had approximately 150 per cent higher chances of possible depression than those not burned.
Women whose homes didn't have electricity for lighting also had 40 per cent higher odds of being depressed than those with electric lighting. Finally, it was found that a longer time spent cooking each week was associated with lower mental well-being.
These findings reveal that enabling households to cook and light their homes with modern fuels may positively impact women's mental health.
There are many reasons that a lack of access to clean energy may worsen women's mental being. These include a loss of productivity, less food security and fewer job opportunities than those with access to clean energy. Time is also lost because women often travel long distances to gather firewood. In addition, cooking with biomass fuels takes much longer than cleaning energy sources.
The absence of mental health research in sub-Saharan Africa stems partly from people's fear of being stigmatised if they speak up about depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
The World Economic Forum asked participants about specific aspects of their quality of life that they may be more willing to answer, using a survey instrument called the Short-Form 36.
For example, the participants were asked, "During the past four weeks, to what extent has your physical health or emotional problems interfered with your normal social activities with family, friends, neighbours, or groups?" and "During the past four weeks, have you accomplished less than you would like as a result of any emotional problems (like feeling depressed or anxious)?"
One woman from Kenya said that cooking with gas has "saved her time in the morning" so that she can "prepare her child for school and get to work on time". Another Kenyan woman shared that cooking with gas "has made (her) save some money which (she) directs to the education of (her) kids" and that her "health is in good condition not as before when (she) used charcoal".
Study To Provide Further Motivation
While more research is required to examine whether women's mental health improves when families are provided with gas or electric cooking stoves, the emerging research findings look promising.
The research found that providing women in Nairobi, Kenya, with stoves fuelled with bottled gas reduced their stress levels, improved their diets, and gave them more time to take on new employment.
The researchers hope these studies will further motivate the clean household energy transition in low and middle-income nations. Worldwide use of "clean" cooking fuels by 2030 is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
The International Panel has also recognised it on Climate Change as an essential target for mitigating climate change, specifically by assisting in reducing global temperature rise. As the research shows, there may be a significant, additional mental health benefit if this crucial goal is met.
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