Kampala — TWENTY-five-year-old Nahabwe of Kakoma in Bushenyi laboured under the weight of a stack of firewood. On one of her numerous journeys to fetch firewood, she was raped and is HIV-positive.
"I had gone to search for wood when a panga wielding man approached me. He threatened to kill me if I refused to have sex," says the young mother. "I do not know what would have happened if I had refused."
Ten years ago, her sister Anne Nankunda was lynched for collecting firewood from someone's eucalyptus plantation, while her mother, Jessica Mugisha, suffered snakebites in search of wood.
Wood scarcity has a huge implication on the health of women. It ranges from back problems due to carrying heavy loads to risks of rape, beating, injury and snakebites. Girls often drop out of school to assist in collecting firewood.
Firewood scarcity is a big issue in western Uganda just like it is in the rest of rural Uganda. The land available is not enough for settlement, save for subsistence farming. Small plots of trees are privately owned. Malnutrition is evidently on the increase as nutritious but dry-preserved foods like beans and peas are avoided because they require a lot of energy for cooking. A single meal a day is a common thing in many homes.
"We walk over 20 km in search of wood," says Jane Kazoora, a mother of eight. She owns one acre of land. "I would have loved to plant trees where I could harvest firewood but it is not possible. The land is too small for trees and my subsistence."
Over 99% of people in Bushenyi use wood fuel for cooking. Uganda's energy consumption trend indicates that woody biomass caters for over 90% of the energy supply. Petroleum caters for only 5% and electricity 1%. Still, the high tariffs imposed on electricity dictate that wood will continue to be used as fuel for the predictable future, hence further diminishing the natural forest.
Uganda now has only 3% of natural forest cover left. The annual deforestation rate is between 0.9% and 3.15 %. This is between 70,000 and 200,000 hectares per year, according to Lt Gen. Jeje Odongo, the state minister for environment.
Deforestation is upsetting the delicate ecological balance, which sustains soil fertility, rainfall, weather, animal and plant species. One avenue through which Uganda's forest is fast being depleted other than timber harvest, charcoal burning and brick baking is use of inefficient technologies for cooking.
"This threatens doom if the problem is not addressed," says Odongo. "Tree planting must be made a duty of every citizen. This responsibility should not be viewed as a responsibility of government or institutions like National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). We must plant trees around courtyards, houses, public roads and schools as reflected under the National Forest and Tree Planting Act 2003."
"Ten years ago in Bushenyi, you would walk half a kilometre to fetch firewood," says Cyril Magambo, Ruharo parish coordinator. "Now you have to go very far. Hills are devoid of tree cover due to high population that has decimated available land."
So, women are vulnerable because in most societies it is their responsibility to provide the biomass fuel. Women spend from two to 20 hours a week collecting fuel wood alone, and the distances covered over difficult terrain can be considerable.
Women and children are exposed for up to seven hours a day to pollution concentrations 100 times and more above accepted safety levels. There is ample medical evidence that smoke from burning biomass fuels leads to killer diseases such as penumonia, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.
The impact, according to World Health Organisation, is familiar. Between 2000 and 2004 there has been a dramatic 35% increase in cases of acute respiratory infection, 'largely as a result of burning wood indoors'.
Over 1.6 million people, predominantly women and children, die each year as a result of kitchen smoke from biomass fuel. "We need to look at the two sides of the fuelwood challenge: the demand and the supply," says John Kuteesakwe, the Energy Advisory Project (EAP) officer. "Improved technologies to reduce fuelwood use and the levels of smoke are a must on the side of demand. While on the supply side planting trees must be more emphasised."
In Bushenyi, like in a few other parts of the country, efforts are ongoing to popularise the use of Improved Rocket Lorena Stoves to cut back on deforestation.
The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, with the support of the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) through EAP has partnered with, among other NGOs, the Integrated Family Development Initiatives (IFDI) to promote improved stoves for households and institutions.
Residents and commercial artisans have already been trained in the production and use of biomass energy-efficient technologies in the wood-scarce districts of Kanungu, Mbale, Kabale, Arua, Masindi, Kampala and Bushenyi. They include the domestic and institutional firewood stoves and the firewood-baking oven.
In Ruharo, a parish chosen by President Museveni because of being the poorest oin Bushenyi, 620 homes out of 980 adopted improved stoves since 2003.
"Our target is to design more 56,000 stoves in the next three months," says Kuteesakwe. "Trained local artisans will help in designing of more stoves and promote their use in institutions like schools and hospitals.
"If adopted, a new sense of responsibility will arise with regard to sustainable use and protection of our environment, as well as preserve trees to make Uganda a green canopy."
In boiling water, Lorena Stoves are 30% more efficient than the traditional open three-stone fire stove at 15.6%.
"In only five years the stove can save wood estimated up to sh12m, yet it may work for more than eight years," says Richard Twebaze, director of Ishaka Vocational School with two Rocket Institutional Stoves. He adds, "I am so proud of this stove because it saves wood, yet it is costless. Besides it ensures a clean environment and is almost smokeless."
"I am very happy because of such a big relief from firewood collection. You just use mweziga (sorghum husks) and soil," says Jerorine Byaruhanga, 54, of Kichawamba village, in Ishaka-Bushenyi town council. "One can even cook with essanja and the food gets ready. It uses just small sticks."
The stove is built using readily available local materials like clay and anthill soil, while poor conductors of heat like vermiculite, pumice and sawdust are used as insulating material.
The stove saves 50-70% of energy compared to the traditional three-stone fire.
Leonard Mugerwa, a consultant on Biomass in the EAP helped design the new equipment. "This is possible because of the rocket elbow combustion chamber specially made to improve combustion efficiency to a greater percentage, it results into an almost smokeless operation, and no charcoal," he explains. "Smoke and charcoal are a result of poor or incomplete burning of fuel (firewood). The future is in using improved technology if we want to save our country's trees," says Tumuhimbise, senior energy officer in the ministry of energy and mineral development. "These safe-to-use stoves have varied advantages necessary to save our environment from further man-destruction," he says.