By Michael Malakata
LUSAKA (AlertNet) - More of Zambia's forests are likely to be cut down for charcoal after the countryÂ?s energy watchdog allowed national energy company Zesco to hike electricity prices for domestic consumers by around 40 percent in August.
Carbon emissions from deforestation are an important factor in global warming, and denuded slopes can cause disasters as they are more vulnerable to landslides. The rising cost of electricity could therefore worsen the effects of climate change in Zambia, where local rainfall patterns are becoming more extreme.
Earlier this year, flooding destroyed homes in the capital Lusaka, forcing hundreds of people to camp at a stadium for six months. And in the Gwembe valley in the south, crops were swept away by heavy rains, leading to severe food shortages.
Government secretary Edith Mwale, 35, who lives in Chelstone in the eastern part of Lusaka, is among those who have had to switch back to using charcoal for cooking and heating.
"Electricity drives almost everything at home, but now we have to suspend so many things including baking and sewing because we cannot afford to buy electricity like we did before," Mwale said.
She says depending on the wood-based fuel makes life tough for her family of six, because cooking on a charcoal brazier is much less efficient than an electric stove, and reduces the household's ability to produce baked goods to sell for extra income.
Mwale says using charcoal for power becomes even more difficult in the rainy season - which starts in November and lasts until March - when there is less dry wood available for producing it.
HIGHER PRICES, BETTER SERVICE?
Last year, the Energy Regulation Board (ERB) allowed Zesco to increase electricity tariffs by 35 percent, and has indicated it will be permitted to raise them again next year. Two days after the latest hike was announced, ERB acting director Mushiba Nyamazana argued on local radio that people should pay more for the energy they consume so the next generation can receive a better service.
"It is unfortunate that most consumers are not ready to spend a little more for the benefits of investment into the energy sector," Nyamazana told journalists in the studio.
But in a country where 60 percent of the population of 12 million lives on less than a dollar a day and more than 60 percent are jobless, many simply cannot pay for more expensive power. The cheapest source of energy is charcoal Â? which is now likely to be produced on a larger scale.
Workers who have been laid off from the country's textile, chemical and mining industries are heading to rural areas in hopes of making money from charcoal burning.
That goes against the Zambian government's aim of reducing charcoal consumption, which has contributed over the years to deforestation and the loss of tree varieties across the country, particularly in southern areas, Serenje in the centre, and Mpika and Luapula in the north.
The Consumer Association of Zambia (ZACA) is also concerned the electricity price hike could slow the country's economic growth. Executive secretary Samuel Simutunda told AlertNet the ERB has overlooked the plight of poor households who have been hit hard by the price increases.
"It is unfair on the part of consumers for ERB to increase electricity tariffs when the quality of service at Zesco has deteriorated and nothing tangible has been done to improve it," he said.
But Zesco Managing Director Ernst Mupwaya insisted on a government TV show in August that the price hikes were already bearing fruit, with the additional income allowing the company to reduce the number of people waiting to be connected from 8,000 to 3,000.
Nonetheless, Zambia - like many other African countries - faces worsening power shortages, which both government authorities and Zesco management claim can only be avoided by raising more funds for electricity generation through higher tariffs.
Despite the price hike, load shedding - intentional power blackouts in response to high demand - has continued because of inadequate generation by Zesco, with many towns and townships having no electricity for three to four hours a day.
Even those who can still afford electricity are forced to buy charcoal for cooking and heating because of the rationing.
"We still have power outages despite the tariff adjustment, and we have to buy charcoal for use during blackout times. I think Zesco is just stealing from us," said David Tembo, an office worker for the Media Institute for Southern Africa-Zambia, who lives in Kanyama, a shanty compound in Lusaka, with his four children.
Lusaka-based energy consultant Soul Jere says Zambians should consider using Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) or paraffin to heat their houses instead. Most of Zambia's LPG is wasted or exported to Kenya and Tanzania in very small quantities because Zambians do not know how to make use of it, according to Jere.
"Using different sources of energy will save the country from being deforested because there will less reliance on charcoal," he said.
Michael Malakata is a journalist based in Lusaka, who writes on science, environment, technology and health issues for local and international media organisations.