Southern Africa, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change, is experiencing its most severe drought in a century. Following two years of poor rains and failed harvests, the rural poor are confronted with the worst consequences. In Zambia alone, 2.3 million people are severely food insecure and in need of assistance, according to the United Nations.
Reduced rainfall is also affecting the country’s urban middle classes. Zambia’s energy sector is heavily reliant on hydroelectric power, but dammed water levels are hitting record low capacity. As a result, load shedding is leaving homes without electricity for up to 16 hours a day.
During the long power cuts, families still have to prepare their meals and boil water to drink their regular cup of tea. But Zambians have few alternatives. Gas is not widely available, and petrol for generators is too expensive, which means the most convenient energy source is charcoal.
“Load shedding is undoubtedly one of the primary drivers of increased demand for charcoal among urban households in recent times,” said Kaala Moombe, a senior researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Lusaka.
Furthermore, small businesses that were traditional users of electricity, are now also increasingly turning to charcoal to be able to keep operating, according to Moombe. “Think of restaurants, or catering services. Either they use charcoal, or they risk going out of business.”
As a result, charcoal prices are soaring, making it difficult for many Zambians to make ends meet.
According to CIFOR research, up to 90 percent of Zambia’s households rely on wood fuel to meet their energy needs. Because fuelwood is cheap and readily available in rural areas, it is the prevailing choice in the countryside. It is cities that are behind an unprecedented charcoal boom, which is causing the clearing of the country’s forests and woodlands.
Zambia’s population is rapidly growing and becoming more urban. According to government figures, the country has an annual population growth rate of 2.9 percent (for comparison, in India population growth is 1.1 percent, and in France 0.4 percent), and 39 percent of Zambians were living in urban areas in 2010. However, the United Nations projects this figure will increase to 58 percent by 2050.
Cities like Lusaka, Kitwe and Ndola are now home to many of over-crowded and under-served shantytowns. And off-grid homes make a thriving market for charcoal.
The popularity of charcoal is also a matter of home economics, according to Davison Gumbo, CIFOR scientist.
“Families can buy a little bag of charcoal every day and rationalize their consumption,” he explained. “With electricity, you can’t know how much you are spending until the bill arrives at the end of the month, but charcoal is so expensive these days that without knowing, many people are spending more than they would for gas or electricity.”
A pressing threat for forests
Forests cover about 66 percent (over 50 million hectares) of Zambia’s territory, including a large swathe of miombo woodlands, a unique semi-evergreen ecosystem that is home to elephants, rhinos, giraffes and other diverse wildlife, and is central to the livelihoods of millions of people, providing fuel wood, construction materials, medicine, food and other ecosystem services.
However, estimates indicate that the country is losing between 250,000 to 300,000 hectares of forests per year – an alarmingly high deforestation rate, to which unsustainable production of wood fuel significantly contributes.
In the past, charcoal production was localized, but in recent years it has become widespread in all provinces, according to Gumbo.
“Furthermore, while harvesting of wood for charcoal used to focus on one or two species, depletion is forcing producers to resort to lesser-used species and even food-bearing trees,” he said.
“Farmers are looking beyond their farm plots and turning to charcoal production to supplement their incomes,” Moombe added. “Rural households have been severely affected by drought, and they are finding an alternative livelihood in charcoal – this is the case of my own village, Monze, in the Southern Province.”
“Drought, a consequence of climate change, is fueling charcoal production, which in turn is causing forest degradation,” said Bravedo Mwaanga, CIFOR assistant researcher. “But losing our forests will only increase Zambia’s vulnerability to climate change – we are facing a very vicious cycle.”
Making charcoal more sustainable
Zambia’s National Development Plan, the country’s development blueprint, aims to increase access to alternative energy sources, and cut dependence on wood fuel to a share of 40 percent by 2030. But CIFOR scientists are not so optimistic.
“While energy transition is necessary, the required changes might not take place fast enough to avoid the negative effects of charcoal production on the environment,” said Gumbo. “This is why we must do something to make charcoal, and wood fuel in general, more sustainable.”
As part of the Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) project, financed by the European Union, CIFOR is working to promote better governance of the wood fuel sector and testing options to improve value chains.
A big problem is that current regulations are not effectively enforced on the ground, according to Moombe. For example, charcoal producers are required to obtain a permit. But the Forestry Department is understaffed and cannot properly manage such requests. For most producers, it is thus easier to take the risk to perform their activities illegally.
To address these issues, CIFOR is working with the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) to support local charcoal producer associations, who can obtain a group permit to produce charcoal. This measure cuts red tape and brings them into the formal economy – thus making it easier to regulate their activities.
Another relevant intervention concerns Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR). Miombo species have the outstanding quality to be able to regenerate after disturbance, but more research is needed to understand how to facilitate this process.
“We are supporting several testing plots as this could become a very cost-effective model to promote restoration of areas that have been degraded by charcoal production,” said Esnelly Katongo, CIFOR junior assistant researcher.
CIFOR researchers expect that these interventions will have an impact on national policymaking.
“The Forestry Department is currently drafting a new charcoal regulation, which we expect will be ready by next year,” Moombe said. “We stand ready to provide our recommendations.”
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