Air Pollution in South Asia: Biomass Burning Emissions & its Impact

Use of Biomass for household cooking

By Hemraj Bhattarai
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Mar 10 2020 (IPS)

A young adult man requires 15 m3 or 15 kg of air, 1.5 liters or
1.5 kg of water and 0.75 kg of solid food every day. This indicates
around 87% of our everyday basic requirement is air.

The simple question is, what happens to our health and
environment if the same air gets polluted? The short and simple
answer is, “pollution kills”.

Biomass burning (BB) in rural kitchens is still the primary
source of energy particularly in developing countries. Around 3
billion people rely on open fires or simple stoves for cooking.
The World Energy Outlook report of International Energy Agency 2011
claimed 39% of the global population use biomass fuel either for
cooking or heating and are largely consumed in developing

For instance, the earlier findings during 2000s reported more
than 80% of domestic energy in India is from biomass of which ~ 90%
of the households use animal dung or wood for cooking. Huge amounts
of gaseous and small sized particles that can enter into our lungs
are released from the household BB or from rural kitchen.

This adversely degrades the indoor air quality and seriously
affects human health and on a larger scale contributes to climate
change and global air pollution.

Traditional cooking stoves which have incomplete combustion of
biomass fuel and emit substantial amounts of pollutants is very
common in the South Asian region. The common types of biomass fuel
used are wood, dried animal dung, sugarcane bagasse, crop residue

Ishora Devi – 50, is one of the regular users of biomass fuel
in a traditional cooking stove. Every day she wakes up around
4:30-5:00 am, and burns the traditional stove to cook food for
humans and animals (buffalo). She had a family of 8 members
including her and two buffaloes.

Usually she burns on the stove 3-4 times a day and each time it
lasts up to 1-2 hours, which means in a day she spends around 4-8
hours near the cooking stove in a smoky zone. She explained, “I
use around 10 kg of firewood each day.”

The ceiling of her kitchen has already changed its color and
turned in to black due to continuous burning of firewood and
emission of soot particles. Similarly, the color of the door shows
a significant difference in color i.e. the lower half is normal
whereas upper half is brown or almost black.

This indicates, the smoke once released is hotter and lighter
therefore tries to accumulate near the ceiling. Thus, a person who
works in the kitchen by standing is more likely to be affected
compared to the one who works by sitting.

Ishora Devi is just a representative of billions of people using
biomass fuel who spends most of their life in the smoky
environment. Most of the kitchens are not well ventilated therefore
the air inside the kitchen cannot flow smoothly thus could cause

Besides household biomass burning inside the kitchen, crop
residue burning also has a strong influence on local to regional
air pollution. Recent findings in 2019 highlighted the significant
influence of countryside crop residue/wood burning on Delhi air
quality particularly during post-harvest season i.e. winter and

The researchers used the state-of-the-art technology of dual
carbon isotope fingerprint (δ13C/Δ14C) to come-up with this solid
decision. The small-scale crop residue burning is frequently
observed in rural sites over South Asia. Such open burnings release
tremendous amounts of gases and aerosols which once released into
the atmosphere, degrades its quality.

Dr. Lekhendra Tripathee from Nepal, an assistant Professor at
Chinese Academy of Sciences, who is working in the field of air
pollution in Himalayas and Indo-Gangetic Plain over the last eight
years, claims, “the air pollution has no political boundary and
could easily transport from one site to the other.”

He further added, “Humans are the polluter and victims of
their action. The more we control the emission, the safer
environment we will have to live in.”

Professor Cong Zhiyuan at Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research,
Beijing, China, identified the transport of biomass burning
emissions from South Asia to Tibetan Plateau and their impact on
fragile and sensitive ecosystems in his paper published in
Scientific Reports in 2015.

Biomass burning releases huge amounts of gases and aerosols
related to carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and many more which are more
likely to threaten the human life, climate and ecosystem

Emission of huge amount of air pollutants as a result of crop
residue burning in South Asian region

Biomass burning is the major cause of air pollution which leads
to several chronic illnesses such as lung cancer, acute respiratory
infection, asthma, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease etc.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2012 estimated worldwide
annual premature death of 4.3 million people as a result of indoor
air pollution caused by biomass combustion during cooking.

In general, of the all deaths from lung cancer, ambient air
pollution accounts for 29% and almost half (~ 43%) of the deaths
from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is caused by air

Women, children and aged people are mostly the victim of indoor
air pollution. WHO reported, death of children under 5 years of age
due to pneumonia is the result of particulate matter (soot) inhaled
from household air pollution.

In short, air pollution is a global problem and more serious in
the case of South Asia where biomass burning is extremely high. The
increase in dependency over renewable energy such as
hydroelectricity could help to maintain the atmospheric

*Hemraj Bhattarai is a graduate student from
the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, University of Chinese
Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China. Currently, he works at the
Kathmandu Center for Research and Education on issues relating to
air pollution in the Himalayas and South Asia.

The post
Air Pollution in South Asia: Biomass Burning Emissions & its
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Air Pollution in South Asia: Biomass Burning Emissions & its Impact