After decades dreaming about the Himalayas, Rotary member George Basch went on his first trek through the mountains in 2001, when he was 64. A member of the Rotary Club of Taos-Melagro in New Mexico, USA, Basch found that the experience was even more than he had hoped.
"My expectations were high, and dramatically exceeded," he remembers.
But a less-than-pleasant aspect of the experience was the indoor smoke pollution he encountered in the guest houses and private homes he visited. Many families in the Himalayas use rudimentary cookstoves or, in some cases, an open fire pit inside the home to prepare food.
Basch says the effect is like sitting in front of a campfire roasting marshmallows and suddenly having the wind blow the smoke in your face. "You're coughing, your eyes are tearing, you want to leave," he says. In some homes, this unpleasantness is compounded by the use of yak dung for fuel.
It turns out that the smoke is not only bothersome, it's downright dangerous. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million deaths in 2012 were linked to indoor air pollution in households where cooking is done over coal, wood, and biomass stoves. More than half of the deaths were among children under age 5. One expert says that having an open fire in the kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour.
After a second trip to the region in 2009, Basch decided he had to do something. The good news was that the problem could be solved relatively easily with the installation of clean-burning cookstoves.
Basch, an engineer by training, tracked down a clean-burning cookstove made by a company in Colorado and met with the inventors to determine whether the stove would be a good fit in Nepal. The Himalayan Stove Project kicked off with delivery of four dozen stoves to Nepal in 2010. When Basch followed up with a visit the following year, he learned that the stoves had been universally well received.
To date, his project has provided more than 3,000 stoves. For about $100, the Himalayan Stove project can buy, transport, and install a new stove in a home. Because some of the recipients live in remote areas, the stoves have to be taken in by helicopter and then hand-carried, in some cases for days, to their destinations.
Each family that receives a stove provides a service or makes a donation in exchange, perhaps donating time to a local community center or purchasing supplies for a school or clinic. In one community, families paid small fees for the stoves, and the money was used to create a microfinance program.
Basch is hoping to drum up more support for his project from Rotary clubs around the world. His New Mexico club was the first to make a contribution. Individual Rotarians also have donated to the project.
Basch also is partnering with Rotary members in Nepal. In February, the Rotary Club of Tripureswor, Kathmandu, helped deliver and install 90 stoves in the village of Gamcha. When the Rotary members returned later to interview recipients, they were told that the new stoves used less fuel and cooked food faster than the ones they'd used before.
News like this fuels Basch's determination to change as many lives as he can. "Just in the mountainous areas of Nepal, there is a need for a million stoves," he says. "That would be a wonderful outcome, if we could deliver a stove to everyone who needs one."