United Nations
Environment Programme

Something’s cooking in the Afghan mountains

Bamiyan province in Afghanistan can be an inhospitable place. Wedged between the Hindu Kush and Koh-e-Baba mountain ranges, temperatures can plummet to below -20°C (-4°F) during the long Afghan winter. With no electricity, gas or water infrastructure to support them, people must be very resilient to survive in this rugged place.

Inhabitants of this remote area collect shrubs from the mountainsides to burn as fuel for cooking and heating. However, without these plants in the soil, rainwater flows unrestricted, causing flooding. When burned, the shrubs produce thick smoke that leads to respiratory problems, particularly for women and children who spend the most time in the kitchen.

Supported by UNEP and the Embassy of Finland, Afghan NGO the Conservation Organisation for Afghan Mountain Areas (COAM), developed innovative culinary solutions to these problems.1 Habiba Amiri, COAM’s country director, explains that “we have found four solutions for the cookstove project: the tandoor, bukhari, fuel and solar”.

Tandoors are a staple of many Afghan kitchens. However, these large clay ovens bellow smoke through their upward-facing outlet, filling the kitchen with smoke. A simple yet ingenious design has significantly reduced this problem. By rotating the tandoor by 90 degrees, smoke emissions decrease. Yasir, the brains behind the new design, explains that “we thought to make something which makes less smoke, which consumes less [fuel] and which makes more bread”. Indeed, the new oven produces over 90 per cent less smoke and burns 70 per cent less fuel, resulting in improved health and lower costs.

Not satisfied with just one innovation, COAM has also reinvented the bukhari, a traditional fuel-burning heater and cooker. In addition to functioning as a heater, the new design can simultaneously boil water, bake bread and cook on a hotplate. It can also be insulated for fuel efficiency or opened to heat the home during winter months.

Both the tandoor and the bukhari can be fuelled by locally produced high-density briquettes that produce less smoke and are more energy efficient. Now there is less need to collect fuel, which means that fewer shrubs are being torn from the already-barren mountains.

Another simple yet effective solution has been the introduction of solar water heaters. A metal dish reflects the sun’s rays directly into pot, which boils the water inside. Locals can use the heaters to make a scalding glass of kahwah, a traditional green tea, all without striking a single match.

Habiba explains the project’s many benefits: “We have considered that the economic situation for each family is different. It is very good for children’s and women’s health, the environment and creates job opportunities. Those that can make the stoves can get jobs.”

The project’s next phase will be locally run and see Bamiyan’s culinary solutions distributed to 10,000 individuals in the region.

Together, these local innovations help protect the environment and women and children’s health while generating employment for local men, illustrating that simple, locally driven solutions for local problems are often the best for all.2

1 The cookstove initiative formed part of a wider UNEP community resilience-building project to address issues such as food security, sanitation and natural resources management.
2 To view a video on the cookstove project, please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIFWQ_kFby8