Today’s Solutions: October 24, 2021

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal have a new way to prepare meals, without firewood, kerosene or the risk of smoke inhalation – the solar cooker.

Marco Visscher | Jan/Feb 2008 issue
Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
have a new way to prepare meals,
without firewood, kerosene
or the risk of smoke inhalation—
the solar cooker.

They look like giant satellite dishes, or spare parts from some disassembled spacecraft. Though they might seem out of place, the 2,500 solar cookers in use at a camp for Bhutanese refugees in southern Nepal have become essential to daily life. Residents use the cookers to purify their water, for example, or to cook eggs and potatoes without using water at all. The technology—brought to Nepal by the Dutch humanitarian organization Stichting Vluchteling, known as the Netherlands Refugee Foundation—provides a cleaner and healthier alternative to using the more conventional fuels.
A majority of the thousands of residents in the camp used to cook using petroleum supplied by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which also supplies huts, food and drinking water. But rising fuel prices made this too expensive.
The nearby forest has also been an important source of fuel. Some two billion people around the world forage in forests for fuel. Every day, camp residents would set off to cut down trees for wood to make their evening meal. But, often illegal, felling trees leads to scarcity—deforestation rates in Nepal are among the highest in the world—and without the trees’ roots, monsoon rains wash away fertile soil.
Moreover, the smoke from the burning wood leads to health problems. The poisonous vapours irritate eyes, lungs and throats. Of all environmental dangers, the World Health Organization has identified indoor pollution from cooking as the second most common cause of death worldwide, after using contaminated water.
Also, buying wood—or the equally unhealthy alternatives: petroleum, coal or biomass—can take a quarter of poor families’ income. This is the case in the Beldangi camp in Damak, eastern Nepal, where the photographs on these pages were taken.
The Bhutanese refugees have very little income because they are not permitted to participate in the Nepalese economy. Starting in the 1990s, they have been fleeing their kingdom in the Himalayas due to discrimination. The Lhotsampas were denied citizenship and when their language was banned and traditional Buddhist clothing made compulsory, some 100,000 people fled back to Nepal, the country they left in the 19th century for Bhutan. But the Nepalese government won’t recognize the Lhotsampas as refugees and consider them illegal immigrants. The UNHCR is housing them in seven camps, where some have lived for as long as 18 years. Tensions are high among native Nepalese because of the extra drain on aid resources and jobs—even though the refugees aren’t allowed to work outside the camps.
The Netherlands Refugee Foundation hopes the solar cookers will send a signal that the Lhotsampas haven’t been forgotten. The foundation expects to donate another 4,000 solar cookers.
The solar cooker works using the reflection and absorption of the sun’s rays. A parabolic mirror reflects the light of the sun, causing a pan placed in the middle of the cooker to heat up. A meal of rice, lentils and vegetables can be cooked in an hour if conditions are right. It takes a bit longer on a cloudy day.
The new owners of the solar cookers paid about $1 each, for which they got two pans (black, because they absorb heat better) and a box to keep dishes warm. Some refugees are trained to teach others to use and maintain the solar cookers. Others have been trained to assemble the cookers and warming boxes.
Solar cookers aren’t just suited to tropical countries. Weather permitting, they can even be used in seemingly incompatible climates like northern Europe, except during the winter months. For the cookers to work, the sun simply needs to shine for at least 20 minutes an hour.
No tree-felling, no CO2 emissions, no air pollution, no health problems: It would seem that a sunny solution has been found for the Bhutanese refugees.
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