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By Benjamin Dills Contributor December 12, 2011

Environmental degradation compounds the devastating famine in East Africa, but one simple program may help curb deforestation in the Horn of Africa.

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa has impacted the lives of over 13.3 million people. While the situation appears to be improving, the UN estimates that a quarter of a million people still face a critical need for food aid. This crisis has renewed the debate over how to most effectively address the immediate needs of those facing starvation while also confronting the systemic factors that place people in such a vulnerable situation. Environmental degradation, particularly deforestation, has been one of the most significant factors leading to the East African famine.

Forests provide not only protection against regional drying and topsoil erosion, but also alternative livelihoods during tough times. A growing population and the corresponding rising demand for cooking firewood, however, has destroyed much of Africa’s tree cover. This problem is acute in the vicinity of camps for displaced people. The food aid residents receive needs to be cooked, and so women and children must scour the surrounding area for firewood. The more people taking shelter in the camp and the longer it exists, the larger an area that is cleared of trees, contributing to a vicious cycle of drought and deforestation. Such damage also causes resentment among the host communities, imperiling political support for the camps. The distribution of clean, efficient cookstoves with humanitarian food aid would be an effective yet inexpensive way of mitigating this damage.

Normally, camp residents use open fires and traditional stone stoves to cook their food, but with these methods only about 15% of the heat from the fire actually cooks the food, while the rest passes into the air. This inefficiency wastes precious fuel and creates excess smoke that leads to respiratory diseases among users. Every year, 1.9 million deaths are caused by respiratory diseases linked to these traditional cooking methods. Alternatively more efficient cookstoves can cook meals for entire families with only a few branches and without exposing the users to smoke.

When displacement is linked to conflict, the need to search for firewood carries even graver risks. In Darfur, the regions around aid camps were stripped clear of useable fuel by the unsustainable demand. With every passing month, a wider and wider area has been cleared, forcing women and children to make even longer trips in search of essential fuel. In some cases they must regularly walk for as long as seven hours. While away from the camps, they risk mutilation, rape, and death at the hands of the Janjaweed militias. With more efficient stoves for cooking, they would have had to make fewer, shorter trips away from the safety of the camps.

USAID could address these problems and strengthen its efforts to promote the use of efficient cookstoves throughout the developing world by pairing efficient cookstoves directly with its humanitarian food aid. At present, USAID already takes part in the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, pledging $50 million to this public-private partnership over the next five years. While this organization does excellent work in communities throughout the developing world, displaced people are a particularly vulnerable demographic this organization needs to do more to reach.

NGOs are doing what they can to fill the need. The Darfur Stoves Project, for instance, expects to be able to produce 25,000 stoves for the region in 2011. This is an invaluable contribution, but it has come years after the conflict in Darfur began and there are not enough resources available for such organizations to reach the over 2.7 million people that conflict has displaced.

National organizations like USAID have the capacity to take such efforts to scale and even prepare for a crisis before it happens. With stoves in some cases costing as little as a few dollars apiece, the benefits would be well worth the investment. Many of the simpler models can be manufactured in the areas in need, creating valuable local business opportunities. USAID and its partner NGOs could purchase stoves from local manufacturers, creating steady demand, and then stockpile them in anticipation of a crisis in much the same way as food aid.

While a seemingly modest thing to offer those who have lost their homes and livelihoods, cookstoves make a big difference for displaced people. They improve their health, and the time they save gathering fuel can be put to use putting their lives back together. In conflict ridden areas cookstoves save lives by reducing the time women and children spend away from the safety of aid camps. The trees they save preserve the soil and climate, protecting communities from future famines. With such a low cost and the economic benefits they could bring when supplied by local manufacturers, providing displaced people with cookstoves would be a valuable yet cost-effective mission for USAID and other agencies.

This piece received third place in the International Affairs Review-Graduate Student Forum Fall 2011 Essay Competition.

Photo courtesy of Ikhlasul Amal via Flickr.