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Problems and promises

The fuelwood problem
The human cost of fuelwood shortages
Forests and fuel: An overview
The role of FAO

The fuelwood problem

In 1980 nearly half the world population depended for its energy needs on one fuel: wood. Wood is thus the most commonly used source of energy in the world. For the inhabitants of the developing countries, it is much more than that: it is the staple energy resource of three-quarters of the population. In some of the poorest African nations it still accounts for more than 90 per cent of national energy consumption.

Although fuelwood and charcoal provided only 6.2 per cent of world energy supplies in 1981, most of the wood removed from forest was used for energy- 59 per cent of it in the world as a whole and 85 per cent of it in the developing countries. On average, every person in the developing countries consumed about 0.45m3 of wood, as fuelwood or charcoal, a year. This is the energy equivalent of about 4.2 gigajoules* (GJ) or 1200 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year.

* 1 GJ is 109 joules and is the energy equivalent of about 35kg of coal or 70kg of dry hardwood

In 1981, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a map of the fuelwood situation in developing countries. It revealed that of the 2000 million people who depended on wood, 96 million were already unable to satisfy their minimum energy needs for cooking and heating. A further 1052 million people were in a deficit situation' and could meet their needs only by depleting wood reserves. Out of this total of 1148 million people, more than 64 per cent lived in Asia. Shortages were most acute in the arid regions of Africa, in the mountainous areas of Asia, particularly the Himalayas, and on the Andean plateau in Latin America. Overall, a further 400 million m3 of fuelwood were needed to make good the deficit.

These are the essential statistics of the current fuelwood crisis. However, the situation is worsening rapidly. Projections for the year 2000 suggest that, without immediate action to improve the situation, 2400 million people will by then either be unable to obtain their minimum energy requirements or will be forced to consume wood faster than it is being grown. By the year 2000 the world fuelwood deficit will have reached 960 million m3 a year - the energy equivalent of 240 million tonnes of oil a year.

This figure provides a clue to the cost of failing to provide the developing countries with the fuelwood they require. Were the deficit in fuelwood in the year 2000 to be met by increased oil consumption, the cost would be - even at today's price of $30 a barrel for crude oil - about $50 000 million a year.

Obviously the deficit will not be made good in this way. The cost is too high and the developing countries - most of whom are net petroleum importers - cannot afford the foreign exchange which would be needed. In practice, the cost of the fuelwood crisis must be measured, less accurately but more painfully, in terms of human suffering.

The scale of the problem was assessed in a study carried out by FAO for the Technical Panel on Fuelwood and Charcoal of the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Energy Sources held in Nairobi in August 1981. The Panel estimated the cost of meeting basic energy requirements in fuelwood, mainly by tree plantation schemes, at $1000 million a year (1980 prices) for 20 years in the developing countries. This estimate did not include the cost of building up the institutions needed to do the work which, it was thought, might double the cost for the first ten years. As the Panel reported, "There is no risk of over-estimating the magnitude of the necessary efforts."

The human cost of fuelwood shortages

The global statistics of the fuelwood crisis conceal what it means to run short of the energy needed for cooking and heating. Most rural homes in developing countries have no supply of gas or electricity, oil is virtually unobtainable and kerosene can provide a substitute only for the wealthy minority, mostly in urban areas.

As fuelwood becomes scarce, women and children - who are usually responsible for heating the home and cooking the food - are the first to suffer. Rural dwellers have to walk farther and farther to collect the bare minimum of wood needed for survival. And town dwellers must rely on supplies which come from farther and farther away. In Upper Volta's capital Ouagadougou, fuelwood now comes from sources which are on average 54 km away. Every day an average of 1563 fuelwood deliveries are made to the city, of which only 187 are motorized - the rest are made on foot or by bicycle, camel or donkey. In Bangladesh, the charcoal consumed in the city of Dhaka is manufactured more than 300 km away.

Map below shows the 'fuelwood deficit situation' in developing countries. By the year 2000, some 2400 million people will either be short of wood or will be using it faster than it is being regenerated China not included

In Zaire, families in Kinzono on the Bateke plateau require between one and two sacks of charcoal a month to meet their basic needs. The cost of charcoal has now reached $300 a tonne which means that a single sack will cost about one-third of a worker's monthly wage. In the poorer parts of the Andean Sierra and in the Sahel as much as 25 per cent of all household income must be spent on fuelwood and charcoal - a figure which rises to 40 per cent for some East African households.

Difficulties in acquiring sufficient fuel, whether because of distance or cost, lead to hygiene and nutrition problems. Few of the principal food crops in developing countries are palatable or even fully digestible unless cooked. If cooking is skimped because of lack of fuel, protein intake is often lowered. In many areas families can eat only one cooked meal a day instead of two simply because they lack fuel. Agricultural practices are changing because vegetables which can be eaten raw are often preferred to other, perhaps more nutritious, crops which need cooking.

The effects of fuelwood shortage extend far beyond the individual family. A lack of this basic fuel produces a chain of reactions affecting the nature of rural society, its agricultural base and the stability of its environment.

As fuelwood becomes scarcer, substitutes are eagerly sought. In a rural society, agricultural residues are virtually the only alternative and such materials as straw, dried dung, rice husks and even plant roots are burnt. Where these materials formerly provided a useful animal feed, there is a consequent loss to the food production system. Where they were formerly returned to the land, the latter becomes improverished, deprived both of the essential nutrients in the waste and of the humus it would otherwise provide. It has been estimated that in Nepal every tonne of dung which is burnt deprives the country of SO kg of grain.

A related effect occurs where, as in parts of Senegal, a tree cover of species which are naturally nitrogen-fixing, such as Acacia, is removed. Soil fertility declines and in the end the land must either be abandoned or brought back into production with expensive artificial fertilizer.

Land on which the tree cover has been drastically reduced soon suffers from a variety of other ill-effects. It becomes increasingly susceptible to soil erosion, both by wind and by heavy seasonal rainfall. This, in turn, encourages desertification. And soil which is eroded from one place usually ends up somewhere else where it is not wanted - on the bed of a new reservoir or the bottom of a fast-flowing river. Siltation and flooding can then become major problems.

Forests and fuel: An overview

It has been suggested that the solution to the fuelwood problem is to find an alternative energy source for the developing countries. Unfortunately, as the Panel on Fuelwood and Charcoal pointed out in 1981, "There is no alternative source of energy that could provide a viable substitute for fuelwood... within the next quarter century."

In one sense, this is no bad thing. The best alternative to fuelwood is more fuelwood - and the reason is that providing energy in the form of renewable wood solves far more than a drastic energy shortage. Wood plantations can take many different forms and provide many different advantages. As well as yielding fuel, they can help provide timber for homes and village industries, restore fertility to the land, halt desertification, prevent soil erosion, reduce flooding, provide animal forage and improve the climate. No other alternative form of energy can offer such a broad prospectus.

Most of what has been published about forest energy stresses the magnitude of the fuelwood problem but this is only one aspect of the story. In the long run, the role of forest energy in world development is likely to be far more positive. Even today, there are many countries in which fuelwood supply is much higher than demand. In those countries, this important and renewable energy source will play, and already is playing, a key role in national development. Wood, after all, is a cheap and renewable form of solar energy. As one report has put it, "Despite much research, no one has yet invented a cheaper or more adaptable system for capturing and storing solar energy than leaves and wood."

Wood energy can provide a 'soft transition' from a traditional economy and technology to a more advanced one - a transition which, when made with the help of fossil fuels, is often abrupt and unsettling. Many countries are already using forest energy not only to meet the domestic needs of cooking and heating but to meet industrial ones as well. Fuelwood and charcoal have many positive features as sources of commercial energy. They are ideal, of course, for providing both process heat and shaft power for forest industries - sawmilling, chipping, panel production and pulp and paper making, for example. In most cases these industries can now be run more profitably off forest energy than they can off fossil fuel.

Secondly, there are many small-scale, predominantly rural industries where fuelwood or charcoal can provide a convenient source of heat. These include crop drying, brick making, pottery firing, lime production and even the manufacture of cement. Thirdly, forest energy is also used extensively in heavy industry, notably in mineral smelting where charcoal is in some countries the preferred fuel. Finally, the use of fuelwood and charcoal for electric power production is being intensively investigated - and, in fact, a handful of countries is already generating electricity in this way.

It is also significant that the uses of fuelwood are now being intensively investigated in the developed countries. In 1981, 53 million m3 of fuelwood were harvested in Europe, 104 million m3 in North America and 78 million m3 in the Soviet Union. In Sweden about 8 per cent of primary energy consumption comes from wood, and a number of other European countries have intensive development programmes for wood energy.

In the long run, restoring and increasing the number of trees in rural areas is likely to provide more advantages for less expenditure than any other comparable technique for dealing with the fuelwood crisis. But solving the fuelwood problem cannot be conceived as an isolated issue, separate from related problems of rural development, agricultural production and environmental stabilization. The effective solutions will be those which include energy forestry as part of a more general development strategy, and which reap all the rewards which trees can offer, including the supply of fuel.

Villagers in Mali return from a long trek for fuelwood, using donkeys to pull their over-laden carts' Many town dwellers in the Sahel countries now rely on wood which is transported more than 50 km

Cattle browse discontentedly among the stumps of what was once an olive grove in Pakistan long since removed for fuelwood. Soil erosion soon follows the deforestation of steep slopes like these

The role of FAO

FAO, within its Regular Programme, is making determined efforts to improve the fuelwood situation and to help developing countries mobilize more of their forest biomass to provide energy and other goods and services for rural development. It disseminates the information thus produced very widely and acts as a clearing house for the exchange of information on wood energy topics. The development of suitable training material and programmes is also a major area of work.

As part of this work, FAO's Forestry Department is monitoring the changing patterns of fuelwood supply and demand in the developing countries. It is thus in a position to identify areas where there are critical shortages now and where they may occur in the future; and to recommend what kinds of projects are needed to correct them. It is also involved in evaluating the impact of fuelwood shortages and studying the cost of using agricultural waste and animal dung as substitutes for fuelwood. A particularly important area is the preparation of case studies of successful fuelwood production schemes. It is producing technical monographs on the use of different tree species for energy and studying the economics of different ways of growing fuelwood.

In addition, FAO now operates the Forestry and Rural Energy Programme - which is essentially a field programme financed through Trust Funds provided by donor nations. The object of this programme is to help developing countries improve their fuelwood supply by mobilizing additional resources with which to attack the problem. Special importance is attached to the 25 least developed countries which are now experiencing increasing fuelwood scarcities. The aim is to provide the kind of advice and technical expertise needed to develop sizeable programmes to improve fuelwood supply as part of rural development.

A successful programme of this type may well involve using a number of different techniques. Initially, more research may be needed - for example, into fuelwood demand patterns in certain areas or into the most appropriate tree species for use in replanting schemes. Secondly, demonstration projects may need to be arranged to ensure the full participation of local people. Thirdly, extension workers will need to be trained so that they can instruct villagers on plantation techniques and forest management. Fourthly, a country's forestry institutions may need reorganizing and upgrading. In many areas, organized forestry has totally ignored the fuelwood problem and has sometimes taken active steps to prevent local populations from using forests as a source of fuelwood. Consequently, many rural dwellers have become hostile to forestry institutions. Altering this situation must be a major goal in any fuelwood programme.

Finally, good progress can often be made by promoting technical cooperation within developing countries (TCDC). The key here is to establish links between the research and forestry institutions in countries which share similar problems in the same region. In this way, expensive duplication of effort can be avoided and important advances in technique can be rapidly disseminated. FAO has already taken the first steps in organizing a regional energy forestry network of this kind in Asia and others are planned in Africa and Latin America.

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