GILGIT: Every year, from October to April, residents of Gilgit-Baltistan spend most part of their day sitting in front of fireplaces in large, but poorly ventilated halls, to brave the frigid weather.
As the region lacks clean energy sources, the primary mode of heating is traditional stoves called ‘Bukhari’. These wood-burning metal heaters are made up of three parts — a fire chamber, a chimney, and a cooking surface — and are used throughout the year.
It is not just the firewood, cow dung, or coal that is used as fuel. People in urban parts of the region burn plastic bags and similar synthetic waste in addition to rubber acquired from tyres to keep these stoves running amid freezing temperatures. These stoves are tried-and-tested heaters — meeting the needs of the populace for centuries.
But there is a major downside to their use — the impact on the pulmonary system of people huddling around them, chiefly children and elderly people. Gohar Balti, a resident of Skardu, tells Dawn that the dependence on these stoves increases significantly during the winter — a time of the year which coincides with a surge in respiratory diseases across the region.
These stoves, usually installed in closed spaces without proper ventilation, are to be blamed, he said, highlighting the impacts of these heaters on the air quality inside the houses. “People are not aware of the risks these stoves pose to their health and the environment, so the practice continues unchanged,” he added.
‘Inefficient’ heaters have adverse impact on indoor air quality, experts say
The claims made by Balti and other residents are corroborated by a study conducted by the Gilgit-Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency to assess indoor air quality and its impact on health.
The environmental agency said the existing design and construction practices in GB and the poor manufacturing of ‘Bukhari’ and their flawed installation are mainly responsible for the acute respiratory infections among people, particularly the elderly and infants.
In closed spaces — at least every house has one big room to trap the heat — high concentrations of PM2.5 and carbon monoxide were recorded, especially at the time of cooking due to the use of wood and cow dung, as per the study.
It also linked the rise in respiratory diseases — wheezing cough, bronchitis, and chest tightness — in winters with the use of inefficient stoves; chronic respiratory obstruction, asthma, eye-stinging, hypertension, and heart diseases are also a by-product.
The environmental agency said that as opposed to traditional modes of heating, households that have separate kitchens and a proper ventilation system and use electric stoves and heaters do not report a high frequency of pulmonary diseases; their indoor air quality is also healthy.
Dawn tried to get the latest data from government-owned hospitals on patients suffering from pulmonary diseases. However, despite multiple reminders, the hospitals failed to provide relevant data about the patients’ influx in winter. However, they did agree that traditional stoves posed risks to human health.
But why do people turn to these stoves despite the health risks; mostly because of financial constraints and a lack of alternatives. As most parts of the region face up to 20-hour outages, the only source of heating widely available is these ‘traditional stoves’. Locals said these stoves are “efficient and affordable” making them widely popular among the majority of the population. “Marginalised communities in GB are highly dependent on wood, animal dung, and agricultural remains as a primary source of energy which is neither efficient nor clean,” the study by GBEPA concurred.
GBEPA Director Shahzad Shigri told Dawn that the traditional stoves used throughout the winter pose risks to the environment as well, especially in the form of deforestation.
He added that these stoves do not have “controlled emissions” [inefficient installation of chimneys results in some of the smoke dispersing inside the house], unlike modern electrical appliances.
Dr Sharif Astori, executive director of Kuwait Medical Complex in Skardu, told Dawn that GB residents face a shortage of oxygen at high altitudes already and the use of these stoves compounds their problems.
Sharif Astori said the emissions of smoke cause asthma, eye-stinging, hypertension, and heart diseases — ailments common among the GB residents. Dr Astori said the only solution is to provide alternative clean energy to the people of the region through hydropower.
Meanwhile, the study by the GB environmental agency, while drawing the attention of policymakers towards this “grave issue”, asked the government to implement existent “effective and efficient energy solutions”. These steps would reduce the burden on the healthcare system of the region as well as mitigate the impact of traditional heating methods on the environment.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2023
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