Harnessing the Congo’s rivers to save its forests

by Thomas Hubert | @tom_hubert | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 14:12 GMT

Thanks to the mighty Congo River and its tributaries, the potential for hydro-power in the Congo is greater than in any other African nation, researchers say. Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It’s not the timber trade, agricultural expansion or mining that poses the greatest threat to tropical forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the demand for energy

It’s not the timber trade, agricultural expansion or mining that currently poses the greatest threat to tropical forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but the demand for energy — something that could be addressed by harnessing the country’s rivers, according to new research.

Floribert Nyamwoga, co-author of the new study (in French) that examines the potential of international programs aimed at slowing forest loss and degradation (REDD+), says that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the country’s domestic energy needs – supplied in the form of fuelwood and charcoal – can be tied to household cooking, he said.

“It is very difficult to consider stopping deforestation here without talking about energy issues,” said Nyamwoga, a researcher with the Kinshasa-based Council for the Defense of the Environment through Legality and Traceability (CODELT).

The DRC recently emerged from decades of civil war that hindered investment in infrastructure, including its aging electricity grid, which covers only the main cities and delivers intermittent power.

But Samuel Assembe-Mvondo, who co-authored the new study published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said thanks to the mighty Congo River and its tributaries, the potential for hydro-power is greater than in any other African nation.

Only 0.77% of this potential is currently exploited, according to research quoted in the report.

Even South Africa, more than 1,500 kilometers away, “is offering to fund dams in the DRC because this could produce enough energy to reach their border,” Assembe-Mvondo said.

He and his colleagues also argue in the study that targeting forest loss through energy policy would be economically viable as well as culturally and socially acceptable to the local population, tens of millions of whom depend on these unique ecosystems for their livelihoods.

“We think that working on energy in the DRC as part of REDD+ programmes could yield results from a very early stage,” Nyamwoga said.

This issue was discussed at the two-day conference Sustainable forest management in Central Africa: Yesterday, today and tomorrow Yaounde, Cameroon. 22-23 May, 2013.

More stories on the future of Central Africa’s forests: blog.cifor.org/yaounde

He contrasted this with other policies traditionally associated with combating deforestation.

Conservation, for example, is not expected to make a big difference in the DRC as the mere lack of access already protects large swathes of forests from destruction.

Acting on industrial logging, too, would have limited impact given the low level of current investment in that sector, Nyamwoga said.

Even slash-and-burn agriculture and artisanal logging, both identified as major threats to Congolese forests in the report, can be linked to energy policy.

“Farmers cut down trees for fuel first, and then farm the land,” Nyamwoga said. He added that much of the small-scale timber trade – including its illegal portion – was driven by the demand for fuelwood.

Yet including energy supply into REDD+ policy is not without challenges – not only because reliable statistics are hard to come by.

Many local communities cut fuelwood from savannahs and other areas that are not legally regarded as forests. “Yet that, too, reduces carbon sequestration,” Nyamwoga argued.

When policymakers manage to design REDD+ programmes overcoming those difficulties, solutions are already lined up to curb deforestation through better energy supply, including in remote areas that cannot readily be connected to the national electricity grid.

The study mentions biomass, which could be derived from plants grown on the DRC’s abundant farmland. Nyamwoga thinks this could also happen at the local level.

“Organic waste from traditional farming could feed a methanization unit connected to a gas cooker in the family kitchen.”

Solar energy and smaller rivers could also be harnessed so that “each village has its own micro power station,” he added.

For more information on issues discussed in this article, please contact Samuel Assembe at s.assembe@cgiar.org

This research is carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by the Department for International Development (DFID), AusAid, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and the European Commission.