By Nesia Mhaka
The continued price hikes of Liquefied Petroleum (LP) gas and electricity has accelerated the rate of deforestation of large tracts of forests in Zimbabwe as wood becomes the main source of fuel for heating and cooking for the majority of the poor.
According to the national power utility, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), electricity has increased to almost US$0.20 per KW and LP gas is around US1.80 per kilogramme, making it expensive for a country with an unstable economy.
In 2015, an independent conservationist, Marylyn Smith, said the rate at which deforestation is occurring in Zimbabwe, it would turn the country into a desert in just 35 years if pragmatic solutions are not found urgently and if people kept razing down trees for firewood in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner.
About 70 % of the country’s 16 million people live in rural areas and are dependent on firewood as their principal source of energy. Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency says 50 million trees are disappearing from the country’s forests every year.
The continuation of price increases of electricity and LP gas is now beyond the reach of many people throughout the country, pushing up demand for firewood and charcoal in both urban and rural areas.
ZESA has also imposed the worst rolling blackouts lately, with households and industries going without electricity due to lack of foreign currency, declining water levels at Kariba hydro-power station and obsolete equipment at the Hwange Thermal Power Station.
Kariba Dam hosts Zimbabwe’s largest power station, the 1,050 megawatts Kariba South hydro-power plant, which is generating power at sub-optimal levels due to critically low water levels after the drought experienced last year.
This has affected Zimbabwe’s power supply, which requires about 1,800MW at peak periods of demand, but can only generate around 500MW, also weighed down by the only other major power plant, Hwange.
Hwange Thermal Power Station has rated capacity of 920MW but can only average 450MW at best due to lack of spare parts and frequent breakdowns as a result of the plant’s advanced age.
The power plant, which now requires constant reinvigoration through refurbishments, has outlived its design lifespan of 25 years.
Zimbabwe is supplementing its internal generation supply with imports, but this is not sustainable and consistent given the prevailing shortage of foreign currency also required for other critical needs.
The price hikes of electricity and the crippling power deficit, as internal generation saunters, is driving the rate of deforestation as many people are now using firewood.
Charcoal syndicates operating in Mbire, Muzarabani (Mashonaland Central Province), Hwange (Matabeleland North Province), and in some parts of Manicaland Province, have emerged as the major commercial drivers of deforestation, according to the Forestry Commission, a parastatal.
“There has been a sharp rise in the charcoal business in the last few months. The problem is now serious and just recently the Commission impounded more than 1,000 bags (10 kg each) of charcoal which were being illegally trafficked to Harare.
“Deforestation is rampant in Hwange and Mbire among others, where the syndicates are operating from. Power hikes have compounded the situation and the charcoal syndicates have a ready market in the lucrative Harare market.”
ZERO Regional Environment Organisation project manager, Wellington Madumira, said pressure on Zimbabwe’s forestry resources is a direct result of household energy insecurity.
“While Zimbabwe went to sleep for the first time in its history, new challenges arose especially in the area of energy, particularly electricity and LP gas whose prices shot up through the roof lately forcing people to seek alternative cheaper sources of energy,” he said.
Madumira said deforestation is an accelerator to emission of carbon emission into the atmosphere which has a bearing on climate change; hence power alternative measures have to be implemented.
“Power shortages have compounded the problem and this is having a serious impact on deforestation. As a country we need to find lasting solutions to the energy crisis we are facing. Greater emphasis must be placed on renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydro
“Without money to purchase more electricity or gas, the natural route for most urban residents is to resort to firewood since the lockdown caused by the COVID-19, and with most men being at home, they have found a new pastime, that is scouring the surrounding forest areas cutting down trees for firewood.”
The eastern border town of Mutare town, which used to boast of being the “greenest city” in Zimbabwe, has been losing the tag for some time now. This has been worsened by the the lockdown as armies of residents plunder trees for firewood, according to Madumira.
Patson Phiri, a resident in Mbare – a high density suburb in the capital, Harare, said residents in his suburb were resorting to firewood as electricity tariffs were now too expensive.
“With increasing electricity outages here, I often resort to buying firewood from vendors at local market stalls, who get this from farms neighbouring the city,” he said.
Environmentalists now say deforestation is a symptom of Zimbabwe’s long-term energy crisis which urgently needs to be addressed through investment and promotion of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biogas.