Fueling Humanitarian Aid

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is your morning routine?

If you're a typical American, it probably involves turning on the coffee maker and popping a slice of bread in the toaster, or maybe frying some eggs on the stovetop.

But what if there was no coffee maker, no toaster and no gas came from the stove? What if the only way to boil water or cook food was to use firewood? What would happen to your kitchen -- to your lungs -- if you lit a campfire in the middle of your home every time you wanted a hot meal?

Now go a step further. What if the firewood wasn't delivered to your door, but instead you had to collect it from your local park? Every morning -- every time you wanted a cup of tea -- you'd have to walk to the park, chop some large branches off a tree and carry them back home on foot. Here's the final twist: the park is three hours' walk away and filled with armed gangs lying in wait to attack you. Every morning.

Unimaginable, right? Yet that is precisely the morning routine of millions of displaced women all over the world. And it doesn't only happen in the distant deserts of Africa -- thousands of urban, apartment-dwelling Sarajevans faced a similar reality when gas and electricity lines were cut during the Bosnian war. City parks became fuel sources.

The humanitarian community typically provides displaced families with food and water. However, the food that is distributed -- usually dried beans, hard rice, whole grains -- has to be cooked in order to be edible (imagine throwing a dinner party for your friends and placing bowls of uncooked rice on the table). Yet the need to provide safe access to the fuel required to cook these food rations has escaped high-level international attention -- until now.

This week, the United Nations is launching the work of a global task force that has been focusing on precisely this issue for the past two years. Led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program and my own agency -- the Women's Refugee Commission -- have for the first time created a new humanitarian policy that will compel cooking fuel to be addressed with the same level of urgency as food and water. It is no longer acceptable for the humanitarian system to distribute dried beans and expect women to risk being attacked and even raped as they collect the firewood they need to cook those beans for their children.

Our work is not done, however. Recognizing the central importance of cooking fuel to the daily lives and safety of millions is one challenge; devising alternatives to firewood is another.

Firewood is the primary cooking fuel for a staggering 80 per cent of the world's population -- from refugees in Darfur to rural villagers in Nepal -- and it is one of the dirtiest, least safe fuels available. When burned indoors, it releases toxic smoke that kills more people each year than malaria... It contributes to global warming. It causes house fires and burns children. Its collection is devastating forests from Africa to Asia and is hastening the spread of desertification.

It is for these reasons that a coalition of humanitarian agencies, environmentalists, health and energy experts and others from around the world are working together to devise safe, appropriate alternatives to firewood. Just as we in the industrialized world use different devices to cook different kinds of food, many alternatives are needed for use in conflict and disaster settings -- everything from fuel-efficient stoves, to solar cookers, to gas made from animal waste, and ideas yet to be discovered. All options must be on the table in this global effort to address one of the most fundamental human needs for one of the most basic of human activities: cooking.

In the global quest to find cleaner, greener fuels, we must not ignore the needs of the more than 40 million people -- mostly women and children -- who have been uprooted because of war or natural disaster. Here in America, we take our morning routines for granted. Displaced families should be able to cook in peace as well.