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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 3: Environment and resource management
close this folderThe fuelwood/energy crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentPopulation and environmental concerns
View the documentThe primary energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentProblems of the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentThe socio-economic implications of the fuelwood crisis
View the documentStrategies to combat the fuelwood crisis Strategies to combst the fuelwood crisis
View the documentNew and renewable energy development
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences

Problems of the energy sector in Sub-Saharan Africa

Before the oil crisis in the 1970s, consumption of petroleum and its related products increased because oil was cheap and considered an infinite resource. The advanced industrialized countries developed a consumption infrastructure in the industrial and transport sectors. This meant that demand for petroleum was relatively inelastic. SubSaharan Africa unfortunately developed along these same lines, making it more vulnerable in the oil crisis.

The establishment of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which includes African countries such as Gabon, Nigeria, and Angola, was in response to the inelastic consumption pattern set up by the West in an effort to restrict oil output and to raise prices. Considering the high industrial development and the financial resources available, the West made attempts to move away from petroleum to alternative fuels. Such a move has not been possible in the non-oil-producing countries of Africa, where oil consumption in the energy balance is small and imports very high. For instance, Ghana spends 13 per cent of its foreign exchange on petroleum imports, but this rises to over 20 per cent in Tanzania and Kenya, and more than 40 per cent in Mozambique.

Fig. 13.2 African energy in relation to world production of crude petroleum and electricity (quantities in '000 metric tons of coal equivalent) (Source: based on United Nations 1990)

Fig. 13.3 African energy in relaffon to world consumption of crude petroleum and electricity (quantities in '000 metric tons of coal equivalent) (Source: based on United Nations 1990)

In spite of these huge financial burdens, the direct benefits that accrue from these exorbitant petroleum imports scarcely benefit the rural people. As O'Keefe (1990) remarks, even the recent fall in oil prices may be unlikely to ease the various rationing systems that operate in most non-oil-producing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Because the rural and urban poor cannot afford high-priced petroleum products they have to depend on fuelwood in the various socioeconomic sectors. We therefore find in Sub-Saharan Africa a "paradox" of the wood-fuel situation: a situation of abundant wood-fuel resources in some countries and an acute shortage in certain areas as found in countries such as Ghana and Angola.

In 1981, the FAO undertook a global survey in order to determine fuelwood supplies and demand for them in developing countries such as Africa in 1980 and the year 2000. This was supposed to be one of its contributions to the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. Because there was a paucity of source material, the data were based on projections from the early 1980s, but the results present a reasonable picture of the status of fuelwood in Africa. Four major categories of the fuelwood situation were identified:

1. Areas where there has been overexploitation of biomass to the extent that there is fuelwood shortage.

2. Areas where fuelwood demand is in excess of sustainable supply -referred to as "crisis regions."

3. Areas where population growth is likely to give rise to crisis in the foreseeable future - categorized as satisfactory. In this regard the situation in the Sudano-Sahelian region is critical because acute shortages are expected, especially in the rapidly growing periurban areas. This is occurring because of increasing encroachment of agricultural land, and industrial, residential, and commercial developments. Bushfires and fuelwood production compounded by population expansion have also resulted in gradual depletion of wood-fuel resources on an annual basis.

4. Areas estimated to be generally free of fuelwood supply problems - the humid and semi-humid areas. Nevertheless, large urban centres such as Yaounde, Brazzaville, and Kinshasa located within the forest ecosystems are already experiencing local shortages. This is also occurring in the semi-humid areas of East Africa wherever very high population densities threaten wood-fuel resources. Communal land reserves are particularly in danger of fuelwood depletion.

As an example of the fuelwood situation in East Africa, the Kakamega District of the Western Province of Kenya can be cited. Having an area of 3,500 km2, which constitutes only 0.5 per cent of Kenya's land area, the province harbours over 6.5 per cent of the population. As one of the most populous regions of the country, its population densities are over 800 persons per km2 in localized areas. This has generated a mosaic of small fragmented farms of about 0.5 ha feeding large families of about 10. Consequently, considerable pressure has been put on the limited land to the extent that agriculture and fuel needs are severely threatened. Farmers have no viable alternatives other than to depend on their own tiny land-holding for fuelwood supplies.

Similarly, a fuelwood deficit is to be found in the small mountainous SADCC countries, where population pressure has created acute wood-fuel shortages in countries such as Malawi and Swaziland. The situation in island countries such as Madagascar is also critical, particularly in the central and western sections.

The dynamics of the fuelwood situation represent a growing crisis. Whereas, in 1980, 55 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lived in areas where there was acute fuelwood scarcity and another 146 million lived in areas with an increasing deficit, it is estimated that by the year 2000 about 535 million people will experience a critical fuelwood deficit if exploitation continues at the current rate (United Nations 1990). Wood-fuel exploitation is not solely responsible for environmental degradation. In the forest areas of SSA, deforestation is caused to a large extent by logging and forest clearance for cultivation. Many trees are also lost as fallow periods are shortened. Generally, areas with a high rate of tree regrowth can meet the needs of a larger population than those with low growth potential. Areas with woodfuel deficits are those with low to moderate rainfall and high population densities. In areas such as the Sahel where there is very low population density and low rainfall, the demand for wood fuels has outstripped the slow growth potential of the woody plants, creating acute fuelwood problems in urban and rural areas.

Energy in rural Africa

Rural energy use in Africa is generally low, reflecting the low industrial and urban base of the African economy. The more rural and the lower the incomes of the community, the more use they make of traditional fuels. Cooking, heating, and local industrial establishments are major consumers of household energy, which is dominated by wood fuels (FRIDA 1980). On present trends it is unlikely that fuel switching will occur in the near future on a large scale. As the population expands one would expect a direct increase in fuelwood utilization.

This being the case, a "wood-fuel paradox" can be observed in operation at both local and national levels. In many African countries there is adequate forest stock for wood-fuel production. Within this apparent situation of plenty, however, specific localized wood-fuel shortages exist in western Kenya, northern Ghana, Angola, Zambia, and the Sudan. Arid and semi-arid areas have their share of scarcity just like the large deforested areas in Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. The low carrying capacity of these countries means that growth is not sustainable for either agriculture or wood fuels. For example, in Zimbabwe, Chad, and Mali, advanced deforestation and soil erosion in infertile areas with poor rainfall have forced many people to migrate.

Deforestation is affecting many rural people, who have been accused of being the cause of deforestation. More often these people produce fuelwood from their own food farms, secondary forests, or fallow lands. Where trees are cleared from agricultural land, they are readily used as fuelwood. Deforestation is caused primarily by the need for fuelwood for the curing of tobacco and tea, by excessive felling of timber for domestic and export markets, by agricultural production, by urbanization, by bushfires, and, more significantly, by demand for wood fuel by urban households.

Urban fuel demand

Patterns of household energy use in urban areas are far more complex than in rural areas. As rural-urban migration opens up more avenues for the poor, it also brings about various problems with limited opportunities. Catering for the fuel needs of the poor is just one of the essential services that poor migrants have to provide in the urban area. These are services that would have been free if they were in the rural areas. As most towns in SSA are growing rapidly, urban growth is paralleled by increasing demand for energy to meet consumption needs. This is met by wood fuels. Hence it is estimated that, if the current rates of population growth continue, urban wood-fuel consumption will surpass that of rural areas in the next 20 years or so (O'Keefe 1990).

The significance of fuelwood in the urban energy balance is the limited access to alternative fuels. Fuelwood competes with other household fuels such as kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and electricity. The choice of fuelwood depends among other things on its cost relative to commercial alternatives, their availability and security, and supply bottlenecks. These encourage a lucrative black market in which prices are much higher than the official stated prices. The prohibitive costs tend to increase the reliance of poor women on fuelwood even if it is scarce and expensive. Besides, there is also the cost of modern cooking stoves, which is not affordable to many households that may want to switch fuels.

The available evidence indicates that urban fuelwood prices have been rapidly increasing, causing a household dilemma for poor women. In urban centres in poorer environments fuelwood prices are almost comparable to those of modern fuels. According to Leach and Mearns (1989), African cities such as Addis Ababa, Harare, Nairobi, and Abidjan are experiencing fuelwood price rises in excess of general inflation rates. Thus fuelwood prices in many large cities are increasing in real terms.

Urban demand for fuelwood is accelerating the degradation of woody vegetation. For example, in the Sudan an area of 31,000 km2 of woodland is cleared each year for fuelwood production, especially for charcoal. In certain areas the resulting scarcity has created a disastrous effect on supplies. For example, in Burkina Faso the land surrounding the city of Ouagadougou has been completely cleared of woody vegetation for 45 km in all directions (French 1978: 1-3). As a result, bulky and low-value wood fuels are transported over hundreds of kilometres to urban markets where the fuels are badly needed. Similarly in East Africa, charcoal has to be transported for about 600 km to Nairobi and its environs. In Nigeria, the long-distance haulage of fuelwood to urban centres has been an official concern since early colonial times (Cline-Cole 1985).

As more land around the towns and cities is further depleted of its remaining vegetation, a vicious cycle of soil erosion is set in motion. In extreme cases, wood fuels gradually vanish from the urban market, as in the Cape Verde islands. Judicious urban energy planning may minimize the degradation and improve the access of women and the urban poor to other energy alternatives.