Insufficient cheaper alternatives and a large former refugee population are fuelling tree-felling

HARGEISA, (IRIN) – Insufficient cheaper alternatives and a large former refugee population are fuelling tree-felling and dependence on charcoal in the self-declared republic of Somaliland, adversely affecting the environment, say analysts.

Most urban households use charcoal for everyday cooking. “We use a sack of charcoal every four days because our family is large,” said Zahra Omar, a mother of 12, in the capital, Hargeisa.

According to a 2007 study by the Academy for Peace and Development, more than 2.5 million trees are felled annually and burned for charcoal in Somaliland. The report stated that each household in Somaliland consumed an equivalent of 10 trees a month.

Deforestation exacerbates soil erosion and reduces rainfall availability. Trees are also important in carbon fixing – reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Despite charcoal prices going up since 1991 with the resettlement of former refugees, demand remains high. “Before, 10 years ago, one sack of charcoal [cost] only 5,000 Somaliland shillings [US$0.76] but now here in Hargeisa it is about Sh30,000 [$5],” said Nimo Ahmed, a resident. “When [it] rains… charcoal [becomes] more expensive… because [the] trees become wet.”

Wood for energy

High and rising gas prices have also encouraged charcoal use. Previously, Nimo said, gas was cheaper than charcoal but the price has increased dramatically, with one litre of gas now costing about Sh4,000 ($0.61) up from Sh1,500 ($0.23).

It is the preferred fuel even in hotels, which consume even larger quantities of the commodity. “I use a sack of charcoal for a day’s cooking,” said Anab Mohamed Ismail, a Hargeisa chef.

According to researchers, one of the main drivers of deforestation in Africa is the need for fuel.

In sub-Saharan Africa only 7.5 percent of the rural population has access to electricity, according to a 2009 report on the state of the world’s forests. “As household incomes and investment in appropriate alternatives remain low, wood is likely to remain an important energy source in Africa in the coming decades…” it stated.

Forecasts made in 2001 suggested a 34 percent increase in wood fuel consumption from 2000 to 2020. “However, the rise in fuel prices in the past two years suggests that this increase is likely to be even greater. The share of wood fuel in the total energy supply is likely to decline, but the absolute number of people dependent on wood energy is predicted to grow,” it stated. “The forest situation in Africa presents enormous challenges, reflecting the larger constraints of low income, weak policies and inadequately developed institutions.”

“Charcoal… demand is increasing daily and burning [of] trees is increasing… but we are trying to [encourage] awareness among the people and give them other sources of income,” said Abdirisaq Bashir, the emergency and environment coordinator of Candlelight, an NGO working in environmental management. The NGO is helping young people become involved in alternative activities such as bee-keeping.