The New Times (Kigali)

Rwanda: Just How Green is Our Industry?

opinion

Kigali — Many Rwandan Businesses have been working hard to clean up their environmental act. Some have got farther than others. Here is how they are doing.

The Ministry in charge of the environment has taken the most severe stand against those companies and individuals that commit environmental abuse. The abuses will have to stop.

This touch attitude draws widespread support from the public, whose tolerance for ecological abuses is rapidly disappearing. The business community is under pressure to change its ways, and it is not alone. Tough regulations, more sophisticated environmental lobby groups and an increasingly concerned public are driving almost every business to re-examine the way they conduct their businesses.

The chemical industry is typical. Companies are spending millions of money to put an end to accidental ecological abuses, which often do as much damage to their corporate image as they do to the environment. Indeed, the chemical industry must undertake a national inventory of its air, land and water emissions. And government must consider bans on chemicals and processes that result in the emissions of trace elements that persist and accumulate in the environment. In future, basic chemical feedstocks such as chlorine could be phased out, forcing the industry to find new chemicals and manufacturing processes to take their place.

For many industries, coming to grips with environmental pressures and more stringent regulatory climate will be the biggest public policy issue they face in the new millennium. The days of passive resistance appear to be drawing to a quick close.

Many corporations should appoint senior executives to keep them up to date and in line with environmental regulations. Also, informative and educative policy conferences on the environment should become a common occurrence in business centers.

In Rwanda, environmental protection firms are projecting an annual average growth rate of about 4% over the next few years.

But industries, governments and pressure groups are just beginning to wrestle with concepts such as sustainable development: that perfect balance between managing the environment and the ecology of today, with tomorrow's.

So how are they doing, environmentally? Here are some observations.

Agriculture

The problem: Traditional farming practices have allowed water and wind to degrade soil across the country. As much as a few cms of organic matter in the soil in the drier areas has disappeared since the sod was first broken. In some parts of Umutara. Bugesera and Gikongoro provinces, more than a few centimeters of topsoil can disappear in a couple of weeks of strong dry spells and winds. It is unclear what the true economic costs of such losses are, although some have bandied amounts as high as a few million dollars annually for the dry areas in lost yields and higher future farming costs.

What is being done: Soil conservationists are discouraging the use of common practices that facilitate further erosion, such as leaving fields fallow in the dry seasons and cultivating the soil in the wetter times. Meanwhile, a growing minority of Rwandan farmers are adopting modern technology that minimize erosion, such as seed drills that don't require tilling the soil and different methods of crop rotation.

The outlook: In the past couple of years, government-financed programs have given soil conservationists a boost as they try to win over the tradition-bound farming community. More farmers will probably change their ways as new practices prove themselves in the fields and the economic costs of soil degradation understood.

Automobiles

The problem: Pollution-abatement technology has made great strides. Even so, the increasing number of cars on the roads remains one of the greatest contributors to land, water and air pollution. Kigali's more than 28800 (or nearly 80% of the national total fleet) motor vehicles spew everything from nitrogen oxides to carbon monoxide. They also emit significant quantities of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

What is being done: Auto manufacturers have cut tailpipe emissions of air pollutants by a big percentage in the past 40 years. Further reductions will require new fuel formulations in step with technological advances. The way to cut carbon dioxide is to increase fuel efficiency. Manufacturers have doubled fuel efficiency since the mid 1970s, mostly because they have made automobiles lighter. But, further advances are expected to be incremental.

The outlook: The cost of further reductions in tailpipe emissions will be increasingly steep, and it will come out of the pocket of the automobile purchasers. But it is questionable whether they will be willing to pay. As for fuel efficiency, after improving for years, the average fuel efficiency of cars sold in Rwanda has gradually deteriorated as consumers switch to larger cars. Automobile manufacturers are phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. They are also planning to bring clean, automatic powered cars to the market in the coming years, but their cost will be prohibitive at most.

Electricity Utilities

The problem: Faced with an ever increasing demand for electricity, utilities have kept increasing supply options. But that traditional solution has often brought more pollution, along with plenty of policy controversy. Charcoal and oil-fired plants produce greenhouse gases. Large hydroelectric dams wreck natural habitats. And the nuclear option attracts concerns about safety and cost. Opposition from environmental groups has made it very difficult for utilities to keep building major capacity.

What is being done: Many utilities such as Electrogaz are concentrating on demand-side managementâ-oe encouraging people to conserve energy. Electrogaz has set a goal of conserving the extra capacity enough to satisfy the daily needs of Kigali Metropolitan Regionâ-oe.by the year 2010. The utility expects to spend millions of money to encourage energy-efficient processes and products.

The outlook: Utilities can't afford to underestimate the electricity demands of their customers. Conservationist programs will deliver results, but the crucial questions are how and by when? If demand soon threatens to outstrip existing capacity, utilities will begin clamouring to build more capacity. The debate over how to build that extra-capacity will rage once again, and more fiercely.

Packaging

The problem: The packaging industry, which includes everything from soft-drink cans to packing crates to plastic paper, produces millions of tones of waste every year. The rising costs of disposing of that waste, as well as concern for the environment, have put great pressure on the industry to reduce the amount of garbage it produces.

What is being done: The industry has to cut a deal with government in which it has to promise to eliminate the packaging garbage it produces in a few years by at least a 20% mark measured by weight. It has to do so by supporting recycling systems for such items as grocery bags, developing reusable containers for regular shipments between industries, and reducing packaging through innovations such as concentrated laundry detergents.

The outlook: To reach its goal, the industry is dependent on the collection systems and markets developing for recycled materials because the agreement with government should be based on packaging actually diverted from the waste stream. If the industry makes recyclable products that still get thrown into the4 garbage, it won't reach its target. The industry also has the daunting task of getting consumers to accept packaging that requires more effort on their part, such as using refillable containers.

Forestry

The problem: Public opposition is growing to forestry management practices based on clear cuttingâ-oe a harvesting system in which all trees are cut down in a single area and are eventually replaced by an even-aged stand of trees. It is the most common method of harvesting trees in Rwanda and normally the cheapest. But there is a raging debate on whether it is the environmentally soundest method. And it is undeniably ugly.

What is being done: Sensitive to the growing outcry, forestry officials have been decreasing the average size of a clear-cut, which can range from a couple of hectares to thousands of hectares. The industry maintains that clear cutting is the soundest method of harvesting in many forest conditions. But it is experimenting with other harvesting techniques as the focus of forestry management shifts from growing trees to preserving an ecosystem.

The outlook: One solution may be to dedicate parcels of land for more plantations and then drastically reduce cutting in natural forests. Forest companies would grow trees as an agricultural crop, but harvesting should be much easier and cheaper in the long-run. There are concerns about the plantation method, however, ranging from the quality of the wood grown to the effects on the land.

Pulp and Paper

The problem: Pulp and paper mills that use chlorine as a bleaching agent release persistent toxins such as dioxins and furans in their effluent. These toxins persist in the environment and accumulate in the food chain.

What is being done: The industry has to commit a large amount of money to eliminate dioxins and furans from its effluent in the next few years. This will enable the industry to get rid of a large chunk of the organochlorines, which include dioxins and furans, from its effluent. Most Rwandan pulp and paper processing enterprises use a chlorine dioxide bleaching agent, which produces less organochlorines, and some are using chlorine free bleaching systems.

The outlook: Some environmental groups have called for a ban on chlorine and chlorine-compound bleaching. The industry says a ban is unnecessary if the toxins are virtually eliminated, which means there are no resulting toxic effects on the environment. But groups such as REMA must try to convince the industry's customers to demand chlorine free paper. Time magazine, for example, has already preferred chlorine free paper. So public relations may decide the matter long before science does.

Air Conditioning and Refrigerating

The problem: Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, commercially developed more than 75 years ago, are the "dream refrigerants" upon which the industry is based. But CFCs are known to destroy the ozone layer, which shields the earth from harmful radiation. With CFCs production in Rwanda to be phased out in the few coming years, what will replace them?

What is being done: CFC production will end long before the millions of appliances and commercial refrigeration equipment that use them will end their own useful lives. The industry should now be concentrating on building an infrastructure to recover and recycle CFCs to repair equipment now in place, which can lose refrigerant through leaks or damage. Hydrochlorofluoroncarbons or HCFCs, which don't deplete the ozone layer as much, are replacing CFCs in many cases until a better product is found.

The outlook: HCFC production should inevitably be phased out as well, and debates should be undertaken as to how fast Hydro fluorocarbons or HFCs, which don't deplete the ozone layer, are one of the several products vying to take the place of CFCs and HCFCs. But the change over is going to be expensive because each new CFC replacement requires its own technology and brings with it its own ecological problems.

Mining

The problem: Toxic metals are leaching out of hundreds of millions of tones of mine tailings and waste rock at sites across Rwanda. Water passing through the rock combines with sulphide minerals and oxygen to create sulphuric acid, which leaches out the metals and carries them into the environment.

What is being done: Currently, the only way to prevent the acid rock drainage from getting into the environment is to collect the run-off water in large holding ponds and then treat the water. Some attempts to control the sites must include covering the tailings with a layer of clay and soil to keep water and oxygen away or submerging the acid-producing rock under a meter of water in a human-made pond to prevent water run-off.

The outlook: There is no solution to the problem other than to continue to treat the run-off water until the suphuric acid is no longer produced, which could take hundreds of years. One very mean estimate put the cost of clean up the mine sites at a few million dollars, using current technology.

Smelters and Electricity Generating Stations

The problem: Sulphuric acid spewed from the smoke stacks of smelting operations and charcoal-and oil-fired electricity and or energy generating stations returns as acid rain, damaging lakes and forests in the country.

What is being done: Rwanda as other countries will have to implement acid rain reduction programs, which are expected to more than have the amount of acid rain in the country from levels reached in the past decades. Today, thousands of tons of sulphuric acid could be produced annually in and around Kigali City, which could increase in the near future.

The outlook: There is some evidence that lakes in Rwanda are being polluted. The authorities ought to be persuaded and convinced to appreciate that all sensitive aquatic ecosystems in and near lakes must be urgently protected.

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