Preah Khe is one of the communes in Kampong Speu province that has successfully implemented its lavatory programme, ensuring that 100 per cent of households there have a toilet with no one suffering the inconvenience of defecating in an open area as was too often the case prior to a modernisation campaign undertaken by the local authorities.

Having achieved this fundamental improvement to their community and thereby raising their collective standard of living, the residents of the commune – located in Baset district about 100km from Phnom Penh – are now joining together in a new modernising campaign that aims to create a “Smoke Free Village” by reducing the use of traditional cooking stoves.

Stoves that burn wood create a great deal of smoke that negatively affects the environment of the village and the health of the villagers.

By joining the “Smoke Free Village” campaign, villagers have committed to changing their behaviours in four big ways to make their villages more closely resemble a model village for the entire country, thereby reducing emissions that contribute to climate change as just one of the campaign’s many benefits.

The four behaviours that people have committed to changing are – keep children away from smoke, cook only in a well-ventilated kitchen, always use well-dried firewood and always use a smoke-free cooking stove.

During a recent event called the “Smoke Free Village Cook Fair” that had nearly 100 villagers in attendance in Preah Khe commune, Sao Sey – a farmer and housewife – told The Post that her household had been using a gas stove for the past three months now.

The 40-year-old villager says the switch to a gas stove was to save time and for the health benefits for her and her family associated with an overall reduced exposure to smoke.

“Before I had a stove that burned wood and it was too difficult. Smoke was all over the house when I cooked anything. It would actually make my family and I sick at times. There’s no comparison – a gas stove is much much easier to use than a wood stove, so a gas stove also saves me a lot of time.

“And there’s no need to brush the pots and pans afterwards! After cooking with a gas stove they are all still clean. When we cook with firewood, the pots and pans turn black and take forever to scrub,” she says.

Similarly, Chea Mach, a resident of Trapaing Veng village, says her family has switched to using a gas stove daily now instead of their old wood stove. She says her family also has some dried firewood prepared in case they ever run short on gas.

Gas stoves that villagers use every day in Baset district’s Preah Khe commune. Hong Menea

The 60-year-old housewife says: “People in my village have been changing over to smoke-free stoves for the past couple of years. At first, I used to think cooking rice with the wood stove would make the food taste better than cooking with a gas stove.

“But now that I’ve used gas I know that it tastes the same. There’s no difference. And now I’m not tired all the time from looking for firewood. There is more time to do other things.”

Lor Nguon Leng, chief of the Preah Khe commune council, tells The Post that not that long ago everyone in the commune’s nine villages used traditional wood stoves. And there was always a lot of smoke but they were just following the habits of their ancestors.

But now the villagers had all changed their ways after learning about the effects of smoke on their health and realising the benefits from using smoke-free stoves.

Nguon Leng says his commune has achieved 100 per cent success now with a toilet for each and every household.

“Now everyone has a toilet to use. This is better for the villager’s health and also for their sense of pride. It might seem like a small success to anybody in a big city, but it made a huge difference for everyone here. Now it will be even better here if smoke could be eliminated 100 per cent”.

By raising awareness about the benefits of having a “Smoke Free Village”, Nguon Leng says he has seen the behaviour of the villagers has already changed quite a bit. Although not every villager could change all four behaviours at once many villagers have still made some changes and would keep trying.

“The villagers who can afford it buy gas stoves and smoke-free stoves to use at home. There are a lot more of them than before. I believe that by the end of 2021 almost everyone will have stopped using firewood because it is difficult to even find good firewood these days,” he says.

According to Nguon Leng, there are more than 1,700 families living in the nine villages – of which only perhaps 20 per cent are still using firewood regularly – whereas the other 80 per cent have turned to smoke-free stoves, gas stoves or electric stoves instead.

The “Smoke Free Village” campaign in Preah Khe commune is held in tandem with 100 other villages in nine communes across Kampot, Siem Reap and Battambang provinces.

Villagers participate in a smoke-free cooking fair held in Preah Khe commune. Hong Menea

This government-approved educational campaign aims to mobilise a sustainable transition towards modern cooking technologies despite cultural traditions and society and some restrictions on availability of alternative fuel resources, according to the not-for-profit international development organisation SNV.

Bastiaan Teune – SNV’s global cookstoves coordinator managing projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia and Kenya – tells The Post that traditional cooking practices have negative health affects and they contribute to global warming because the burning of wood for cooking emits greenhouse gasses in the form of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

He says the combined emissions from all of the small cookstoves in the world were as harmful collectively as the entire global aviation industry. On top of that, cooking with wood also polluted the air in the cook’s own kitchen.

“The cooks and their children are exposed to an equivalent amount of smoke as someone who is smoking 10 cigarettes per day. This leads to severe health risks like respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And poor lung health conditions also result in a higher susceptibility to Covid-19,” he says.

According to the World Health Organisation, about 2.5 million households in Cambodia still use traditional cookstoves that burn solid biomass such as firewood, charcoal and agricultural waste.

Due to the indoor air pollution caused by this method of cooking it is estimated that about 15,000 Cambodians die prematurely each year.