Lusaka — As electricity becomes more costly, more families may turn to firewood and charcoal for heating and cooking, critics fear
Zambia's energy regulator has approved a 75 percent boost in the country's electric rates, a move environmental groups fear could push more households to use charcoal and wood as an alternative energy source.
Zesco, the state electric provider, said the price boost was needed as a result of depreciation in the national currency, higher interest rates and rising operational costs, including the cost of buying energy from private power producers, who have stepped in to fill shortages created last year by drought across southern Africa.
Francis Yamba, acting chair of Zambia's Energy Regulation Board, said higher electricity prices would allow Zesco to invest in new kinds of power generation "which are important to diversify the generation mix to avoid the devastating effects of drought that had recently been experienced".
Those are expected to include solar and fossil fuel energy. Currently the country gets much of its electricity from hydropower generation.
But Peter Sinkamba, the president of Zambia's Green Party, warned that higher electricity prices are likely to boost forest losses as more people turn to charcoal and wood for energy.
That could aggravate climate change impacts in the country - including drought - because forests help stabilise rain patterns, he said.
Nearly 60 percent of Zambia's land is covered with forest, but forest losses are growing, as a result of expanding farming and growing demand for timber, firewood and charcoal, according to a 2004 report by Zambia's government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"Due to the high electricity costs people have turned to massive cutting of trees for charcoal production and with this increment we expect deforestation to increase," Sinkamba said.
Most of the electricity price boost came into effect in mid-May, with the rest scheduled to take effect in September, Yamba said.
STRUGGLING TO PAY
Charles Milupi, president of the Alliance for Democracy and Development, a Zambian political party, said most Zambians cannot afford to pay the higher prices for electricity in an economy he said was already struggling.
"Any commodity that people use as being essential to life and you push it up by 75 percent in an economy that is not growing, in an economy where inflation is below 10 percent, means you have placed a very heavy burden on the citizens that utilise the commodity - and that's exactly what (the government) has done to Zambians," said Milupi, an electrical engineer.
That means more people will turn to charcoal and firewood, he said.
A women's rights group, the Non Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC) also has warned that more households will be forced to turn to cheaper energy - or grow poorer.
"The tariff increase, especially for domestic users, will have the potential to further accelerate and exacerbate the already high poverty levels. The increment will increase the proportion of people in the country using unsustainable forms of energy," said Sara Longwe, chair of the group.
The move "will further increase Zambia's vulnerability to climate change," she predicted.
Ester Mwenya, a charcoal trader at a suburban Lusaka market, said demand for charcoal had already been growing even before the electricity price hike as water shortages at the country's hydropower dams led to electricity shortfalls.
"On average I would sell like 15 bags of 50 kilograms of charcoal a day, but since the electricity load shedding last year we have been selling like 20 bags a day and the demand is high," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Inonge Mutukwa, a resident of Lusaka's upmarket Salama Park area, said charcoal had become a more economical cooking choice than electricity.
"If you want to cook food that takes a little time like beans it is better to use charcoal as it is cheaper than using electricity," she said.
Reporting by Whitney Mulobela ; editing by Laurie Goering