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How this NGO helps clean up Cambodian kitchens and curb deforestation

The Dutch development organization Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers (SNV) has been on a mission to promote safe, clean cooking methods in Cambodia since 2015. The effort has proven difficult, as traditional charcoal and wood stoves are ingrained in Cambodian culture, and many believe that food simply doesn’t taste as good when it’s cooked with other fuels.

According to NGO Clean Cooking Alliance, biomass burning accounts for 74 percent of energy use by Cambodians, with 80 percent of that biomass used in the kitchen, a problem that’s exacerbated by the fact that only 32 percent of Cambodians have access to a clean cooking stove.

This puts mainly women and children at risk, as they are usually the ones cooking all day for the entire family.

Inhaling soot particles while cooking with wood and charcoal is linked to the development of respiratory, pulmonary, and cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 14,000 Cambodians die each year because of household air pollution—that’s only 1,000 less than the annual death count of those who smoke tobacco.

Charcoal and wood stoves don’t just negatively impact the community’s health. They also contribute to climate change and deforestation. SNV’s efforts have already saved some lives and trees through the program they launched in 2015 that aimed to introduce cleaner stoves across Cambodia. The program encouraged rural communities to trade in traditional stoves for modern cooking alternatives by offering financial incentives, but ultimately the program fell short due to a lack of education and affordability.

However, in mid-2020, SNV decided to shake up its tactics and focus on education-fueled change through its Smoke-Free Village initiative. They partnered with local authorities like the Commune Council for Women and Children and rolled out several healthy cooking educational activities for schools, health centers, and pagodas.

The village of Chreas was the first to host the program. The community was able to learn about the dangers of cooking fire smoke and about healthier alternatives and solutions through games and discussions. Since its commencement, over 65 percent of local households have participated.

SNV experienced a significantly higher rate of success with these educational events. More than 1,900 clean cookstoves were purchased by residents who attended the events, and hopefully, many more will ditch their wood and charcoal stoves, too. SNV will continue its education program until 2024 and aims to convert at least 80 percent of villagers in the provinces to clean stove users.

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