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Destroying cheap forests to buy expensive water

If deforestation trends continue, water catchment areas will be reduced by 50 per cent in Tanzania, leading to a quadrupling of the cost of water by the year 2020, says a recent independent study.
Zephaniah Musendo

The reduction of Tanzania's woodland due to charcoal production is predicted to reduce water catchment by 50 per cent, leading to a quadrupling of the cost of water by the year 2020, says an independent report titled The True Cost of Charcoal, published in Dar es Salaam in May this year.

This impairment of the catchment function will therefore impose a cost rising to US$300 million per year by the year 2020, an amount that urban consumers will have to pay.

The report by Norconsult Tanzanian Limited, which was commissioned by the Tanzania Association of Oil Marketing Companies, is a rapid appraisal of the potential economic and environmental benefits of substituting charcoal with liquefied petroleum gas as an urban fuel in Tanzania.

"From 15,000 to 20,000 bags of charcoal enter Dar es Salaam every 24 hours, every day of the year, and an equal amount enters the other major towns combined. That adds up to nearly one million tonnes of charcoal per year, for which trees have to be cut from 3,320 square kilometres of forest," says the report.

Four out of every five bags of charcoal entering Dar es Salaam are not taxed, which represents over seven million bags a year. The study found similar abuses in other major urban centres in Tanzania. For instance, a total of three million bags of charcoal enter Tanga, Tabora, Shinyanga, Kigoma, Mtwara, Lindi and Zanzibar every year, resulting in a further loss of taxation revenue.

Some of the forest cleared will regenerate, but much of it never will because it is converted to farmland and/or is cut again for charcoal before it has fully recovered.

Abundant evidence of the charcoal trade is visible throughout Tanzania. A visit to almost any forest reveals the presence of charcoal makers. Highways are lined with charcoal bags for sale in the production areas and outskirts of towns.

The forestry sector contributes heavily to the Tanzanian economy, with a 10 to 15 per cent share of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) being comprised of forest products, according to the study.

Trees provide around 75 per cent of building materials, 100 per cent of indigenous medicinal and supplementary food products, and 95 per cent of Tanzania's energy.

But all this is at risk. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reports that forest cover has declined from 48 per cent in 1980 to 46 per cent in 1989 and 37 per cent in 1994.

Philemon Luhajo, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, has been quoted saying that between 30,000 and 50,000 hectares of forest are lost annually.

Forests were thought to cover half of Tanzania in 1993 – an area of 44 million hectares – but have declined to 33.5 million hectares today, according to the report. That represents an annual loss of 0.73 per cent, which if sustained, would further reduce the forest to 28.4 million hectares by the year 2020.

The present forest cover gives each Tanzanian one hectare of forest. The question on the minds of experts is how much will the next generation have. Will future generations be able to meet their needs for woodland products?

Tanzania’s national energy policy includes the promotion of alternative energy sources. The government strategy regarding alternative energies supports initiatives that promote “affordable and reliable energy supplies in the whole country.”

But there is need to reform the market for energy services and establish an adequate institutional framework, which facilitates investment, expansion of services, efficient pricing mechanisms, and other financial incentives, says the report.

The report says Tanzania is set on a dangerous course, as every year more people try to burn more charcoal taken from less woodland. The diminished and degraded woodland sends less water downstream except during storms.

Cutting down trees to produce charcoal also increases wasteful water run-off, erosion risks, flash floods, mudslides, and the silting up of water reservoirs.

According to the report, rivers run dry for part of the year primarily because of deforestation rather than climate change. Totally substituting charcoal with liquefied petroleum gas would confer an annual environmental benefit on Tanzania worth something between US$12 million and US$160 million, according to the report.

Authorities find it easier to control liquefied petroleum gas consumption than to control charcoal consumption because gas is easy to tax but charcoal is difficult because of the nature of the business.

"Charcoal is effectively subsidised by ineffective collection of dues while gas is penalised by high import duties,” the report states. “In this situation, charcoal users are unwittingly externalising the negative impacts of their fuel choice to the environment.”

Faced with the same problem, the government of Senegal actively promoted the use of liquefied petroleum gas by adopting favourable fiscal, social, and environmental policies and thereby succeeded in checking the pace of deforestation. The report’s researchers recommend that Tanzania do the same.

Deforestation is reducing the availability of water in Tanzania, which will increase the price of water. The report calculates that the Tanzanian forest cover is declining at a rate of 11.5 per cent a year, of which 99.2 per cent is for fuelwood and charcoal. Up to 500,000 hectares may be lost annually.

"This rate is unlikely to decrease unless drastic measures are taken since every year more people will take more wood from less forest," it says.

It is more likely that Tanzanian town dwellers will pay more for less water and will forego the development, health, and convenience benefits of an adequate water supply for the foreseeable future if upland deforestation continues, the report warns.

However, individuals and non-governmental organisations have realised this danger and are telling the government to introduce or encourage alternative energy sources to check the threatening environmental hazard.

A non-governmental organisation that promotes biogas technology in rural areas of Morogoro province has appealed to the government to wave taxes on renewable energy equipment, to enable Tanzanians in rural areas to benefit from the technology as a way of protecting forests.

According to research, the Turiani district biogas project in Morogoro province has shown that one biogas plant could save up to 74 hectares of miombo trees annually.

Another experience with biogas at Rombwe Secondary School in Kilimanjaro province has also produced encouraging results.

"In my school, the 600 students plus teaching staff provide our biogas plant with the needed raw materials to function," says Rombwe Secondary School headmaster Nelson Kangero. He lists garbage and human solid waste as some of the inputs to the plant. Before acquiring the biogas plant, Kangero says his school was consuming 700 metres of fuelwood per annum.

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