Project Surya: A woman-centric approach to clean air

By: Shamita Harsh

How can 3 billion people living in underdeveloped nations breathe cleaner air? Project Surya investigates reliable and sustainable cooking stoves to bring a social intervention that can give women the clean cooking solutions they need.

Nearly 3 billion people in low- and middle-income countries rely on traditional cookstoves fuelled by biomass, such as wood and dung, to cook and to heat their homes. Traditional cooking leads to high levels of household air pollution (HAP), including black carbon, which contributes significantly to climate change.

Tara Ramanathan, Director of Clean Energy, Nexleaf Analytics talks about the intent of the project since its inception in 2009,  “Project Surya was started to clean the skies and clean the air inside the households, starting with India. The vision that inspired me was to take a satellite over a district that was using clean cooking solutions over an extended period of time and that satellite to capture images of a black carbon hole.” 

Project Surya was started to clean the skies and clean the air inside the households
Credit: Nexleaf Analytics

Project Surya, a women-centered model supports the scale-up of clean cooking solutions that women will want to use sustainably in order to reduce the smoke, they are breathing.

Using innovative sensor data that collects information on the usage of the clean cooking solutions and the emissions reductions. The data helps them track the progress of clean cooking solutions and helps to scale up the project by leveraging data on climate and health outcomes. 

“Even the cleanest cookstoves that were designed in India, they were designed as first draft cookstoves, designed to reduce smoke by about 80-90%. Even those stoves were not reducing the smoke by as much as you would expect and the reason why is because people were not using them,” says Tara. 

But what was the roadblock? 

Clean cooking solutions were available to rural parts in India but were either not bought or were gathering dust in the households as women continued to work on the smoke-producing traditional chulhas or stoves.

Project Surya team visiting villages in rural India
Credit: Nexleaf Analytics

Tara spent time with the Project Surya team visiting villages in rural India to see whether there was a reason behind the lack of popularity of clean cookstove solutions.

“What I had seen as missing from the clean stove sector was that not enough people were listening to women. I was seeing a lot of people in the sector who were trying to convince women to use clean cooking stoves but not understanding why women were not using them,” tells Tara, as she talks about the missing links in policy-making and genuinely user-friendly deliverables. 

But what then, was a perfect stove?

Tara explains, “A stove that is user-friendly, durable, clean in terms of emissions and so it reduces carbon dioxide and black carbon by 80%-90% or more and finally is affordable or has an affordable cost-model for the women.”

From evaluating LPG stoves to biogas solutions, clean air is at the centre of all the conversations Tara wants to build. Project Surya is now pushing for reliable solutions that women can use with a consistent supply chain. 

“It is not impossible to understand these solutions,” says Tara, as she explains the connection. “These solutions that are out there are not reliable and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal number seven for Clean Energy Access specifically says in order to scale clean energy access you need the solutions to be reliable and affordable.”

Why black carbon? 

Together, black carbon (BC), methane, and ozone are responsible for 30% to 50% of the human effects on global warming. Reducing emissions means we are basically buying the planet much needed time to find solutions to mitigating the effects of CO2.

Project Surya aims to focus on the three billion people who depend on polluting biofuels and lead them towards cleaner, locally available renewable energy sources. This would lead to immediate improvements in public health, agricultural productivity and economic development for the rural populations in developing nations. 

Clear skies are connected to our individual carbon footprints

With people applauding clear skies due to the nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and quoting a frequent low Air Quality Index (AQI) on the internet, the conversation around reducing potential sources of air pollution disappeared. While AQI was a good metric to learn about the health of the air we were breathing it couldn’t be surmised into being the only metric.

“What is the cause of all of those reductions of air pollution, like what stopped to make the skies clean air? What were the direct contributions? Was it because we were all not flying and was it because of the impact of the planes?” asks Tara.

The pandemic has served their program really well because it has actually made people realize how urgently this problem needs to be solved. “There were so many articles about enjoying the clear skies, where people in India were seeing the Himalayas for the first time. Even in my neighborhood, I was hearing birds chirping, for the first time and I live in a big city, I never hear birds. I was surprised nobody was making that connection to air pollution.”

A sustainable cooking solution?

The solution lies in transitioning to cleaner fuels and technologies, like gas and electricity, and improvements in stove efficiency.

Tara recommends that the only way we fight this war against indoor pollution and air pollution, in general, is if we provide a sustainable solution. She says, “I think the idea of a sustainable, reliable solution that women would love, specifically when we talk about clean cooking, that needs to be in the media.

For some reason all I see in the media is we distributed all these life-saving solutions but distribution does not equal success. Distribution just means it goes into a home, the work that I do is to find out what happened after you distribute it. Whether it is clean cooking or electricity or solar or cleaner cities, any of those solutions- they all need to be reliable and sustainable, and people really need to be investing into the reliability of these solutions.”

Could a clean cooking solution solve indoor pollution? 

(The first-ever International Day for Clean Air and Blue Skies is on 7th September 2020. We’re collecting voices on issues such as air pollution, stubble burning, vehicular emissions, cycling from all parts of India. This is your chance to share your story with us!)

Shamita Harsh

Shamita Harsh

Shamita Harsh is a Digital Video Producer. Her previous stints include the role of an Academic Associate at Indian Institute of Mass Communication and producing multimedia reports as a Video Creator at The Indian Express. When she isn’t training budding journalists, she prefers to spend her time behind the camera, telling stories.

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