Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
As electricity dries up as a result of drought for the second time in four years, Zimbabwe’s forests have already been vanishing for firewood rapidly.
The latest power cuts mean that illegal loggers will only step up their game to feed the need for energy in low-income urban areas, causing the devastation of the country’s forests to become almost unstoppable.
At the last count almost 10 years ago, fuelwood’s share in the national energy mix hovered around 53 percent.
But these figures are now likely to have been overtaken by events given that Zimbabwe’s electricity situation has seldom, if at all, improved in the period since those statistics were compiled.
As a matter of fact, a succession of droughts have led to a decline in hydropower generation, which in good times accounts for over two thirds of Zimbabwe’s internal electricity production.
ZESA, which supplies nearly all of the country’s electricity, said at the beginning of May that its already inadequate national generation had collapsed by about a third to around 900 megawatts due to climate change-induced water shortages at its main hydroelectric power plant at Kariba, in the country’s northwest.
Since then, Zimbabwean households have endured as much as 10 hours of power cuts a day, forcing many to turn to fuelwood for cooking and heating. That’s hardly a surprise though.
Firewood is already a staple in many households, but those in towns and cities have seen a rapid increase in consumption in recent decades as a result of poverty and recurring blackouts.
Studies by the University of Zimbabwe show that in a country where 61 percent of citizens are not connected to the electricity grid, urban households already consume one to 4 tonnes of firewood per year, and rural families more than double that.
And according to the Forestry Commission operations manager, Stephen Zingwena, Zimbabwe needs between 9 and 11 million tonnes of firewood each year for domestic cooking and heating, and 1,4 million tonnes for tobacco curing. He was quoting a study carried out almost 30 years ago.
Much of the demand is being satisfied by illegal logging in the last bastions of natural woodlands like Lake Chivero Recreational Park on the outskirts of Harare.
The current powercuts mean that the cutting down of native trees — key to stabilising local climates yet difficult to grow — will only get worse.
In some circumstances, fuelwood can be sold legally. For example, some smallholder farmers allocated forested land under the fast-track land reform the Government launched in 2000 are allowed to sell their timber. But once at market, the line between legal and illegal timber becomes blurred.
Industry sources allege that the logging syndicates work with corrupt police and officials to exploit legislative loopholes that allow them to pass off illicitly obtained fuelwood as legitimate.
Even if that were the case, there still wouldn’t be sufficient measures to deter bad practice, even from the law. Fines against illegal loggers remain substantially low, at just a few dollars – which compares with the thousands of dollars in profit from the illegal firewood trade.
In 2015, at the peak of power outages, again due to water shortages at Kariba, Forestry Commission spokeswoman Makoto conceded that power cuts were making it difficult to keep deforestation under control.
“It has become more and more difficult to enforce legislation as the situation becomes more about livelihoods,” she said then.
The effects of deforestation will be deeply felt. It is a vicious ecological cycle. As Zimbabwe’s forests dwindle, the decline is seen worsening the water scarcity that is fuelling the illegal logging trade. Models show deforestation could result in a decline in rainfall of more than 5 percent across Zimbabwe by 2050.
There are now only 15.6 million hectares of forests remaining in Zimbabwe due to runaway deforestation, according to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Between 1990 and 2010, the country lost 327 000 hectares of plantation forests and natural woodland on average each year, it says.
God is faithful.