Taos resident and entrepreneur George Basch first visited Nepal in 2001 with a group that was summiting Mount Everest. As a member of a support team at base camp, Basch visited Nepali homes and observed the severe indoor air pollution stemming from regional traditional cooking stoves that lacked proper ventilation.
During a second trip to Nepal in 2009, Basch witnessed the same problem – the cloud of smoke enveloping Nepali homes. What’s more, the traditional burning of yak dung for fuel generated a foul, gut-turning stench.
Soon after, Basch learned about modern stoves that were specifically built to address the need for clean cookstoves across the world. “I characterize it as a cartoon-lightbulb moment,” Basch said. “Here’s a problem I had observed and experienced – and it was awful – and here was a possible way of solving it.”
It was a pivotal moment for Basch. Yale Jones, a Taos resident and retired lawyer who visited Nepal with Basch in 2009, said that he was surprised when Basch became so dedicated to working on this issue. “I didn’t even know that was in his head,” Jones said. “And when he came back and started this, it was quite astonishing.”
For the past eight years, Basch has been the visionary behind a nonprofit organization that has sought to provide modern, efficient cookstoves to rural and low-income communities in Nepal, which in turn help reduce the health hazards of household cooking pollution. Since 2009, the Himalayan Stove Project has delivered 4,100 stoves to Nepal, enough to impact 40,000 people, the approximate capacity of a typical Major League Baseball stadium, according to the nonprofit. Put another way, the Himalayan Stove Project has impacted about 7,000 more people than the population of Taos County.
According to data from the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a nongovernmental organization supported by the United Nations Foundation, household air pollution, caused by traditional cookstoves and venting technology, is the fourth-biggest health hazard in the world. It’s an issue that affects 3 billion people worldwide (about 43 percent of the world population) and kills up to 4.3 million people a year.
Basch’s effort is a small part in the larger project of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which was founded in 2010 by Hillary Clinton. The organization has made it a goal to provide 100 million household stoves to communities in need by 2020 in support of the United Nations’ “Millennium Development Goals.” Presently, the alliance reports that as of December 2016, 82 million clean cookstoves have already been delivered around the world since 2010.
In Nepal, approximately 1 million modern cookstoves are needed. If the Himalayan Stove Project has delivered 4,000 cookstoves, the organization’s website humbly states that “there are 996,000 stoves to go,” revealing the magnitude of the problem. “The need far outstrips our ability to supply them,” Basch said.
‘The iPhone of cookstoves’
Enter the G3300 cookstove. The exterior is a metal drum painted in orange and black colors, while the interior has a clay lining. Wood or biomass fuel can be loaded onto a rack on the bottom. The stoves can be equipped with an attachment that effectively gives the appliance two burners. Chimney pipes that are manufactured in Nepal can be added to the device, allowing the stove-produced smoke to exit the homes in which they are used.
According to Basch, this model of stove cooks 50 percent faster than traditional cookstoves, use 75 percent less fuel and create 90 percent less indoor air pollution. With the high price of delivery in treacherous mountain villages, each stove comes out to the price of $150. The stoves themselves are manufactured in Shanghai and transported to Nepal from there. With proper care, the stoves can last for up to five years.
The stove is part of a suite of products designed by Envirofit, a company based in Fort Collins, Colorado, that takes a market-based approach to producing clean cooking appliances. It partners with nongovernmental organizations that distribute its products all over the world.
“We want to make a stove that people will be willing to try,” Jessica Alderman, Envirofit’s director of communications and public relations, said. “We try to make products that are inspirational.” She added that the company has essentially attempted to make “the iPhone of cookstoves” through functionality and attractive design.
A series of shipments
In 2010, the Himalayan Stove Project sent more than four dozen stoves as a trial run to see how the stoves would be received and accepted.
“The acceptance was uniformly enthusiastic,” Basch said.
The Himalayan Stove Project has delivered four shipping containers of stoves to Nepal over the past five years, the latest this past March. From there, the stoves are brought to mountain villages. While the stoves are delivered free of charge to these villages, the households that receive stoves are asked to make a small financial or work pledge to help their own community.
“All of our local contacts gave us the same piece of advice,” Basch said. “‘Don’t just give it to the people. Ask them to make a donation or contribution, so that they have skin in the game, so that they value it.’”
After two containers were shipped in 2012 and 2014, respectively, the catastrophic 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015 caused the Himalayan Stove Project to shift gears. The earthquake killed 9,000 people and was the deadliest in Nepal since an 8.0-magnitude quake shook the nation in 1934. The Himalayan Stove Project, like many nongovernmental organizations active in Nepal, sprang into action and delivered disaster relief items, such as tarpaulins for temporary shelters, water purification systems and solar lighting systems.
Since then, the Himalayan Stove Project has resumed its primary task of delivering stoves, bringing in two more containers of stoves in 2016 and 2017. Now, Basch has begun raising money for a fifth container. And he’s found interesting ways of elevating the clean cookstove issue.
One of the ways Basch has been able to convey the problem of household cooking pollution is through documentary film.
In 2015, the Harwood Museum screened a sneak peek of a documentary film called “Bön in Dolpo,” concerning the ancient religion of Bön in Nepal. Taos resident and filmmaker Wendy Schuey was an editor on the film. Basch approached her after the film and asked her if she could edit video materials he had accumulated from the Himalayan Stove Project’s work in Nepal.
Schuey went through more than 100 hours of footage creating short videos for the Himalayan Stove Project. From the footage, she gathered a sense of the terrible living conditions in Nepali homes before the Himalayan Stove Project arrived on the scene.
“The kids and babies have black soot caked on their faces,” Schuey said. “They’re basically living in a furnace.”
Basch has also found publicity (and thereby additional support for his work) in the unlikeliest of places, such as snagging a profile in the December 2016 issue of The Costco Connection, the retailer’s magazine for its members, which reaches more than 8.6 million subscribers.
Prestigious groups have also recognized Basch for his efforts. In March 2017, he was recognized by The Explorers Club. He received the organization’s “Citation of Merit,” awarded for “outstanding feats of exploration” or services to the group. The Explorers Club was founded in 1905 to promote exploration and scientific fieldwork. Over the years, it has counted among its members Robert E. Peary and Neil Armstrong.
“This is not ego from my standpoint,” Basch said, explaining that the award helps further the Himalayan Stove Project’s ability to succeed. “It helps visibility and promotion.”
The Himalayan Stove Project counts among its sponsors the athletic clothing brand Adidas, as well as the outdoor outfitting companies Kahtoola, Osprey and Hilleberg.
In 2015, Basch started a carbon offset program that sells carbon credits generated by Envirofit to open up another channel of funding for the Himalayan Stove Project. The credits are certified by Gold Standard, a carbon credit monitoring organization that works with the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat to regulate the carbon offset industry.
“This becomes another source of revenue for us and help for the planet,” Basch said, characterizing the program as a win-win deal.
Climate change caveats
While clean cookstoves can make a huge health impact on the lives of Himalayans, their impact on climate change may be more limited. Given Himalayan culture’s proclivity to burn yak dung for fuel, glacial melting in the region may be an inevitable result, regardless of the type of stove used.
A study published in 2015 in the climate science journal Atmospheric Environment found that Tibetan households that had installed clean cookstoves and chimneys were still exposed to significant household air pollution. Though the study only surveyed 23 households, its results still complicate the issue and emphasize how difficult it is for nongovernmental organizations to change unhealthy – but sometimes necessary – lifestyle habits, such as closing windows to save fuel and stay warm.
Moreover, the ubiquitous use of yak dung as heating and cooking fuel in the Himalayas is still a cause for concern regardless if a cookstove is old-fashioned or modern. Burning yak dung creates black carbon, a significant greenhouse gas, which in turn has dramatic climate effects on Himalayan glaciers. A 2010 study published by the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggested that 30 percent of glacial decline in the region was attributed to black carbon emissions.
“Yak dung is certainly a secondary, less desirable fuel [compared with] wood,” Basch said, but noted that more efficient stoves would definitely be an improvement over the situation at hand. “It’s not helping the environment, but it’s hurting it less. It’s a tough [situation] to dance around.”
“A cleaner stove will help for sure,” Kip Patrick said, the director of global communications for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. “We’re talking about changing the way people have cooked for their whole lives.”
Perhaps one of the most immediate boons of introducing clean cookstoves is that of female empowerment. Women who once had to spend more time searching for wood and other fuels will have more time to themselves.
“George is 80 years old now and he took this on at 72,” Jones said, noting that the Himalayan Stove Project was approaching a critical juncture that will determine whether the project will be able to continue for years to come. “Every small nonprofit has to make a transition,” Jones added. “You have to go from one man with a bright idea and create a bigger team.”
Basch stated that he’s looking for a team of successors: “The goal is to continue to take advantage of the momentum that we have, increasing the volume and developing a team and staff that can take over.”