Uganda's over dependence on charcoal means the country is heading for an energy crisis unless the Government regulates its use, Cornelius Kazoora, an expert in environmental economics has predicted in a new study. What do charcoal burners, environmentalists, politicians think about this?
Moses Asiimwe, a resident of Bugolobi in Kampala does not like what he sees. Everytime he goes back to his village in Nakasongola he encounters more bare patches than, the lush green that used to cover the area.
Not only has it turned into a sanctuary for charcoal burners with devastating effects, but it is also a poverty haven. A few kilometres away from lives the Kampala-Gulu highway, David Samanya, a resident of Migyera, Nakasongola, a father of four, knows well the danger that comes with charcoal burning.
He cannot give up charcoal burning because he does not have an alternative source of income. Without it, Samanya says it would be hard to put his children in school.
"It is my bread and butter," says Samanya, adding that they are caught between a rock and a hard place so they have resorted to charcoal burning as a way of survival.
The State Minister for Environment Flavia Munaaba, during the launch of Earth hour organised by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Kampala noted that the damage being caused by charcoal burning is overwhelming. She also pointed out that a ban on charcoal burning is being considered.
Earth hour is commemorated the world over on March 21 to raise awareness on climate change. "The situation is so bad that some charcoal burners have resorted to cutting down fruit trees," says Munaaba adds that this is unacceptable because such trees have nutritional and medicinal values.
She also points out in case of famine such trees act as a source of food. Samanya is opposed to Munaaba's proposed ban. "Burning charcoal is a source of income and imposing a ban would hurt rural households. I would abandon charcoal burning if I had an alternative."
Munaba's fears are well founded because Nakasongola has run out of trees and what have been left behind are thickets and eweeds such as lantana camara also known as kapanga or kayukiki.
Currently desperate charcoal burners are now going back for remnants that were regarded as inferior trees years ago.Asked what will happen when all the trees get depleted, Samanya replied, "The Government should do something.
We know the Government cannot run out of options." Mugenyi, a forest ranger in Nakasongola says the Government should develop alternatives to charcoal because it is the demand from urban areas that is pushing charcoal burners to cut down trees.
As I talk, there are charcoal dealers camped at Nakitoma, waiting for charcoal, but charcoal is in short supply. Uganda produces charcoal worth sh87b annualy, but the trade employs more than 20,000 people, according to a new study by Dr. Cornelius Kazoora, a private consultant.
But this booming charcoal trade is eating away at Uganda's forest cover. The country, according to Robert Ddamulira, the manager on energy and climate change at the WWF, is losing 92,000 hectares of forest cover annually.
Uganda's forest cover was in 1990, estimated at 4.9 million hectares, covering 24% of the total land area. The State of Environment Report (2008), indicated that by 2005, the forests had reduced to about 3.7m ha (18%) of the total land area of Uganda.
This indicates a loss of about one quarter of the country's forest cover in less than two decades. Currently, biomass fuel is becoming scarce threatening people's nutrition as they avoid certain food such as beans that take long to get ready.
The galloping trend of deforestation is leading to depletion pushing some charcoal burners to migrate to northern and western Uganda.
Charcoal production unsustainable
The wastefulness in the charcoal burning industry is unbelievable, according to Ddamulira. The trees are chopped in pieces and then fired in the traditional kiln.
This technology, according to Ddamulira is inefficient and is part of what is behind the galloping rate of deforestation. "It converts only 10% of the trees into charcoal," he says adding that this means that for every bag of charcoal produced, 9 bags are lost in the process of production.
The consumers have also not helped matters as only 8.5% of the people who use charcoal have improved saving stoves. This, he points out means that most people run out of charcoal faster than should have been the case.
Even when charcoal prices are rising, most of the urban residents are adamant about using more efficient stoves, according to Richard Kisakye, a biomass energy expert.
He says wasteful technologies at production and consumption makes people to run to the forest to burn charcoal more often than when they become armed with efficient technologies.
Charcoal production should be regulated
Better known as dirty energy or poor man's energy, charcoal still lacks the necessary visibility for support. This, according to Kazoora, is the biggest problem because charcoal is despised as a source of energy.
He also points out the national policies and laws on energy, forestry and tree planting do not provide for sustainable charcoal production. In the charcoal producingareas, environment managers told New Vision that even when districts get money from charcoal they do not plough it back into restoration or replenishment of the environment.
The councillors in such districts have turned charcoal into a "cash cow" and they get the bulk of the money in allowances, according to Moses Sekagya, the district environment officer for Nakaseke.
Paul Mwambu, a programme Manager at UNDP agrees with him pointing out that the ministry of energy is concentrating its efforts on a small part of the population.
"Can you imagine that the bulk of the Government resources are being spent on energy resources like electricity serving than 10% of the population?"
He also says the biomass energy (charcoal and firewood) on which serves about 90% of the populations, does not have a budget and is like an orphan in the Ministry of energy.
Globally, charcoal can no longer be ignored, according to Kazoora because it is linked to degradation of the fragile ecological systems in the cattle corridor that covers parts of north eastern Uganda running across central Uganda to western Uganda.
The dry land areas like Nakasogola are becoming drier due to the impacts of climate change globally and degradation is making people more vulnerable to droughts that are becoming frequent in recent years.
Charcoal trade estimated at 6% of the total energy consumption is expanding at the same rate as urbanisation, according to Kazoora. He says Uganda should borrow a leaf from her neighbours.
Kenya's law is recent, but they have regulations on charcoal production with better investment in the charcoal trade, according to Kazoora.
"We want to get a regulatory framework so that we bring big players into the business in order to stimulate the small stake holders," he says adding that making of products like briquettes creates employment, income, environmental benefits and also money from financing mechanisms merging from negotiations on climate change.
As charcoal prices increase, call for sustainable charcoal production as a source of energy and tree planting is becoming louder, Kazoora says.