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Civil war in the Sudan has made the Darfur area of western Sudan into one of the world's largest refugee zones. Aid organizations estimate that two million people are in refugee camps in the Darfur area. Since 2003, between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been killed there. The complex reasons for this humanitarian crisis stem from the region's ethnic and religious differences.
Image of landscape around Darfur with the headline "A Mission to Darfur"

As international organizations struggle with the region's crises, the refugees face serious problems leading their everyday lives. One problem is a critical lack of cooking fuel, which drives women to leave the safety of the camps daily and walk increasing distances to find firewood. Outside camp boundaries, they are often unaccompanied and are subject to attack and rape by the roaming raiders known as the Janjaweed.

Image of map showing the Darfur region

Darfur is in the western part of Sudan, bordering on Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

Darfur is about the size of France and is divided into North, West, and South regions; its vastness makes it difficult for peacekeepers to patrol effectively. The land near the camps has been so stripped of firewood and trees that a one-way journey of three hours is now the norm for most women gathering firewood in South Darfur. In North Darfur, there is no wood within walking distance from many camps, so refugees sell their food rations to townspeople or middlemen to earn cash to purchase wood fuel, also from middlemen, to cook what little food remains.

High-efficiency cookstoves that have been developed in India and elsewhere can efficiently cook meals using substantially less fuel than the "three-stone" fires that are traditional in Darfur. Ashok Gadgil and Christina Galitsky were part of a team of researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD) who recently went to Darfur to test simple cookstoves made of sheet metal or cast iron that use less wood than traditional fires or use alternative fuels such as animal dung.

With minimal modifications, these stoves could save the women in Darfur's camps from the wood-gathering expeditions that make the women vulnerable to attack. Use of the stoves could also reduce pressure on the environment surrounding the camps.

Image of Ashok Gadgil and Christina Galitsky

Ashok Gadgil and Christina Galitsky

Gadgil, who is the leader of the EETD Airflow and Transport group, is familiar with finding solutions to help address the problems of developing countries. He developed the UV Waterworks device for disinfecting drinking water using very little energy as well as a very low-cost technology for removing arsenic from drinking water, which is a problem in many areas of the world, especially Bangladesh.

Galitsky is a chemical engineer who worked with Gadgil on the arsenic-removal technology and has developed tools and guides for improving the energy efficiency of industrial processes, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Gadgil and his team were able to travel to Darfur in November, 2005 thanks to financial support from several sources including EETD and private donors, and the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance via CHF International, a nonprofit corporation investing in community, habitat, and financial assistance worldwide.

Was it safe to go?

"There were two big uncertainties before we left," says Gadgil. "First, we needed to know what kind of wood the refugees use for fuel; what are the common shapes and sizes of the pots they use; what foods they eat; and what their cooking method is. All this affects the stove performance. Information on these matters was very hard to find. What little we learned from others here in the U.S. or even from contacts in Khartoum was either incorrect or missing some crucial details." In view of this limited information, the team decided that it was necessary to visit the camps and learn about the situation for themselves.

A second big uncertainty, says Gadgil, "was the security situation. Just before we left, the United Nations pulled their aid workers out of the West Darfur area, citing violence and unsafe working conditions. In South Darfur, where we were headed, some local aid workers, including several with CHF International, were abducted, but they were later released. We monitored the situation as closely as we could on a daily basis. We were not going there to prove our bravery!"

Image of the Darfur region denuded of it's vegetation

Areas near the Darfur camps are denuded of vegetation.

The journey to the camps meant flying to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, and then taking local flights. Overland travel was too dangerous, as rail and road attacks by warring parties are common. The team traveled safely and stayed in the camps in living quarters provided by CHF for aid workers, and the visit turned out to be incident-free.

Because the refugees' problems urgently need solving, the team attempted to gather data and identify appropriate solutions during one intense field visit.

In mid-November Gadgil and Galitsky visited the Otash and Kalma camps near the town of Nyala. Kalma is said to be the largest refugee camp in the world, with an estimated population of between 90,000 and 150,000 people. Upon arrival, Gadgil and Galitsky set about meeting the local officials, aid workers, and community members in the camps.

While Gadgil and Galitsky worked at Kalma, two other members of the team, Berkeley Lab guest scientists Mark Jacobs and Yoo-Mi Lee, traveled north to investigate camps in North Darfur near El-Fasher.

"One of our objectives was to gather information," Gadgil explains. "We talked informally to refugees to learn about conditions there. Another task was to organize side-by-side demonstrations of the standard method of cooking next to one of our stoves."

Image of the traditional 3-stone cooking method

Three stone fire

Refugees in the camps typically use a "three-stone" fire. Wood burns in the space formed by three stones arranged in a triangle, and the stones support a pot over the fire.

Cooking the main part of the meal involves bringing to a boil a thin mixture of water and flour. The flour is a mix of sorghum, millet, wheat, and corn, supplied by the United Nations World Food Program. More flour is gradually added to the boiling mixture while it is on the fire until it forms a thickly cooked dough called assida. The stove must support the pot firmly enough to stand up to continuous, vigorous stirring of the very viscous dough.

After the dough is cooked, it is moved to the center of a large plate, and a previously prepared hot sauce, mulah, is poured around it. This sauce is made of fried vegetables including onions, tomatoes, meat or yogurt or both, plus spices and dry okra.

Gadgil and Galitsky had brought with them three different models of energy-efficient cookstoves, all of which were available off the shelf from commercial sources or could be manufactured easily in a light industrial setting. One of these designs was rejected early on because it could not stand up to the vigorous stirring.

Image of women in a Darfur refugee camp attending a school

Women in a Darfur refugee camp attend a school

To prove that the stoves could cook a typical meal using half or less of the amount of fuel needed for a three-stone fire, Gadgil and Galitsky arranged demonstrations with the help of aid workers and camp leaders.

"We laid out an equal number of same-weight bundles of wood in front of each stove," Gadgil explains. As the team cooked meals on both stoves, the audiences could see how much faster the wood bundles in front of the three-stone fire disappeared. "It was a dramatic way for them to understand they could achieve 50-percent savings; there was tremendous excitement during these demonstrations."

Image of Christina Galitsky preparing to demonstrate a cookstove.

Christina Galitsky prepares to demonstrate a cookstove.

Invariably the demonstrations were greeted with enthusiasm and requests to make the stoves available immediately. At the second of two demonstrations in Kalma, 250 women attended along with 100 sheikhs, men with governing authority over family and clan groups. The leader of the entire camp made an appearance, even though he was running a fever and had to come from his sickbed, underscoring the high importance the refugees and their leaders attach to the matter of reducing the burden of fuel wood collection for the women.

Gadgil and Galitsky confirmed that women do virtually all of the cooking and fuel wood collection. Men do not leave the camps; they say that if they were found outside the camps, they would be killed by the Janjaweed raiders.

Fuel and food - the tragic trade-off

In the course of meeting with the camp inhabitants, Gadgil and Galitsky conducted systematic surveys with the help of translators. They traveled through the camps accompanied by the local sheikhs and aid group personnel, who provided them with credibility and ensured that interviews were conducted with appropriate introductions, exchange of formalities, and explanations of why the questions were being asked.

In North Darfur, Jacobs and Lee carried out a similar informal survey. Because there is no fuel wood left within walking distance of the North Darfur camps, aid agencies are planning to provide both fuel and food to refugee camps. The fuel situation is so desperate that trees are gone from much of the landscape, and refugees have dug out even woody root balls and residual tree stumps.

The situation is only slightly better in the south. The walking distance to fuel-wood collection areas had increased from two hours in late 2004 to three hours in late 2005. Clearly, the fuel situation in South Darfur camps is unsustainable.

Image of a child in one the camps before a bundle of firewood gathered in the bush.

A child in one the camps before a bundle of firewood gathered in the bush.

"Over one-half of the women have stopped collecting fuel wood and are buying it now, in South Darfur," says Galitsky. "Others still collect fuel wood. Many families sell a fraction of their food ration to buy wood, but this food ration is already inadequate. Of the refugees interviewed in Otash Camp, 38 percent sell food for fuel, as did more than 80 percent in the northern camps. In Otash, almost 50 percent of the families we interviewed had missed meals, even though they had food, because they did not have fuel to cook their meal." She adds, "We estimate the stoves can save the equivalent of $150 in fuel wood per year for an average household of seven people."

Next steps — development and roll-out

Two stoves, one made of sheet metal and one of steel plate and cast iron, successfully passed the team's tests.

"We think that the sheet-metal stoves can be manufactured locally fairly easily at a cost of about 10 dollars," Galitsky says. (One U.S. dollar is worth about 230 dinars, the local currency.) "When we asked the refugees what price they would consider fair for these stoves, they answered 10 to 20 dollars."

The problem is that the camps have no metalworking capability. To establish local manufacturing there, aid agencies would either have to help build workshops in the camp or have stoves built in nearby towns. Nearby towns do have small metal shops capable of working sheet metal although there are no iron-casting facilities. Aid agencies are now considering establishing sheet-metal-working capabilities within the camps, which would help create a local economy and provide employment along with meeting the goal of making the stoves available.

"One of the next steps," Gadgil says, "is to raise money to fine-tune the sheet-metal stove for Darfur. Its performance degraded in breezes, so it needs adequate wind shielding. Darfur is a windy place, and people cook outside about half the time." The stove also needs minor changes to offer more sturdy support to the pots for making the doughy assida.

The Berkeley Lab team and its supporters are planning a program to get the cookstoves into the hands of refugees. In the next phase of the work, they recommend a roll-out of 50 stoves, with which families will cook for a month. During this phase, the team will determine what works and what doesn't technically. The follow-up phase now being planned by aid agencies would involve selling up to 500 stoves to families and establishing metal workshops.

"We are in strong agreement with the aid organizations that the stoves are not to be given away for free," says Gadgil. "If free, they will be undervalued. They could be sold for scrap or otherwise used inappropriately." Microlending programs could help ease the financial burden of buying the stoves. For example, a revolving fund within the community could finance the purchase of more stoves as loans for earlier purchases are paid off and could also support development of stove-building skills and entrepreneurship.

"The educational component of the program will be important to [the program's] success," says Galitsky. "We were present and running the stoves during our demonstrations, showing audiences how to operate the new stoves. Even though the operation is extremely simple, an overstuffed woodstove will still consume all of the overstuffed wood. Educating the refugees needs to be replicated during the roll-out."

Galitsky also offered high praise to the other participants in the effort. "CHF International's headquarters and local staff were very generous and helpful to ensure that our work was properly supported. And the locals in the camps were supportive as well. They did what ever it took to make sure the work was successful."

Gadgil says, "This is a Band-Aid, not a fundamental solution to the problem, but this is what we can do. We are trying to tap into the existing knowledge, to see if we can make a substantial difference, to reduce the misery in Darfur. Before we went, we weren't sure if we could, given what was happening there. But we have now shown that we can make a difference."

— Allan Chen

A Mission to Darfur

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