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An Oregon innovation might just clear the air in Tanzania.

Byline: Sriram Kh For The Register-Guard

The travel doctor gave me a tincture of iodine kit that I could use to disinfect water, if needed, when I was in Tanzania. I never had to use it, though, because bottled drinking water was available everywhere.

But that is also the source of one of Tanzania's environmental problems - empty plastic bottles all over the place: by the highways, on beaches and in open drains.

One might hypothesize that collecting such recyclables would be a source of income to the hard-working poor, as is the case in India. But I suspect that Tanzania lacks a robust industrial base to offer the necessary economic incentives for the poor to turn all that plastic into cash.

The litter problem was, however, nothing compared to the more pressing problem of smoke pollution.

I spent most of my time in Tanzania in a village, Pommern, in the southern highlands. It was a two-hour drive from Pommern to the nearest town, Iringa, which itself is a little more than 300 miles from Dar es Salaam. Pommern is up in the hills, at an elevation of close to 6,500 feet.

With red soil on the rolling hills and fascinating flora that included "sausage trees," Pommern was absolutely picturesque. But it was hard to get away from smoke.

The smoke came from two primary sources. One was the rubbish that was burned practically everywhere in the village. The smoking piles included plants that were cleared away, and even plastic bottles and batteries.

But the smoke and the smell from trash incineration was secondary to the noxious clouds from wood and charcoal burning, which is how the village's energy needs are met.

In a country of 37 million people, barely 10 percent of the population has access to electricity - and that is mostly in urban Dar es Salaam. More than 80 percent of Tanzania's people live in rural areas such as Pommern, where electricity is rare. And gas for cooking is rarer still, even in Dar es Salaam.

Thus, most of the population relies on charcoal and firewood for cooking. The World Bank recently estimated that about 1 million tons of charcoal are consumed every year in Tanzania. That amount is projected to increase, because electricity and gas are not available for the growing population.

Charcoal-making itself is an important economic activity. Charcoal, of course, comes from trees, and it is preferred over firewood because it is easy to store and transport, and it offers more energy than a comparable weight of firewood. It was quite common to see young men selling bags of charcoal in the rural and forest areas that dominate Tanzania's landscape outside Dar es Salaam.

Both charcoal and firewood often are used in remarkably inefficient settings that generate a lot more smoke than usable heat. Often, the "stove" is nothing but a traditional fireplace with three stones.

Women and children often are gathered around these smoking stoves. As one can imagine, such a constant inhalation of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other gaseous chemicals - along with tiny particles of soot - can be devastating for health. Which is why acute respiratory infection, or ARI, is a leading public health problem in this beautiful mountainous setting, along with HIV and malaria.

This trend has not gone unrecognized. The Improved Charcoal Stove was introduced in Tanzania in 1988, and research continues in developed and developing countries alike on designing more efficient firewood and charcoal burning stoves.

It was thus with a gladdened heart and local pride that I read, after returning home, the essay in The New Yorker magazine, which also was referred to in a recent editorial in this newspaper. The article featured the Aprovecho Research Center, right here in Oregon, which has won international recognition for its efforts to design better stoves that also would be inexpensive.

My academic discussions with students about the more than 2.5 billion people who depend on wood and charcoal as the source of energy pale next to experiencing it every day amidst an otherwise gorgeous setting on this blue planet of ours.

I bet the people of Pommern, along with other billions, can't wait for the kitchen upgrade.

Go Aprovecho!

Sriram Kh of Eugene is an associate professor of geography at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 18, 2010
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