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LUSAKA, 3 December 2008 (IRIN) – Zambians are gradually turning to greener energy technologies to save trees after suffering years of extensive flooding and droughts, which could slow the impact of climate change.

Charcoal-fed braziers are being replaced by those burning briquettes made of treated coal waste, which are smokeless and emit low levels of sulphur dioxide gas.

Biogas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide produced by fermenting organic matter like animal or human waste, biodegradable waste and municipal solid waste are also being punted as alternatives to wood fuel.

“Traditional energy sources, especially wood fuel, cause deforestation and serious ecological and environmental degradation in the country,” said Alick Muvundika, head of the water, energy and environment programme at the government-run National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR).

Zambia is listed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as one of the top ten countries with the highest annual deforestation rates. The FAO estimates that Zambia loses about 8,000 hectares of forest every year.

Most of the trees are used as firewood or for producing charcoal, while in many rural areas they are cut and burnt to ash, which is used to improve soil fertility on subsistence farms.

Greener alternatives like the coal briquettes have been available in Zambia since the 1990s, but there have been few takers. Nasri Safieddine, who designs energy-saving traditional cookers, said there had been little political will to promote these technologies until recently.

''Traditional energy sources, especially wood fuel, cause deforestation and serious ecological and environmental degradation in the country''

Power cuts and the price of charcoal are now prompting urban Zambians to explore the greener energy alternatives, said Muvundika. A 10kg bag of coal briquettes costs about US$1.50, while Zambians have to shell out US$5 for the same amount of charcoal, and 1.3kg of coal briquettes can burn for six hours, while the same weight of charcoal will burn for only one and a half hours.

“I realise that this [coal briquettes] is better: it does not produce a flame or smoke like charcoal, it lasts longer than charcoal braziers, and it is generally clean; it is like a stove [cooker],” said Maria Banda, a housewife in the capital, Lusaka.

Experts say the effects of climate change are most severe in areas where the trees have been cut down. In Zambia’s Southern Province, which suffered one of the highest and fastest deforestation rates in the 1990s, floods and droughts have become perennial, causing failed harvests and chronic hunger, while other parts of the country have been experiencing shorter rainy seasons with colder winters and warmer summers.

Trees draw ground water up through their roots and release it into the atmosphere, so removing the forests could lead to a drier climate in the region. Slash-and-burn deforestation and also affects the carbon cycle, warming up the atmosphere, and is responsible for 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year, amounting to one-fifth of the global total.

Joseph Kanyanga, chief meteorologist at the Zambia Meteorological Department, said the country had experienced significant changes in temperature and rainfall patterns over the last 40 years.

“[There have been more] … floods than dry spells, especially in recent years, and this is a signal of climatic change in our weather patterns. It means that Zambia needs to adjust to environmentally friendly ways of living to avoid such effects as outbreaks of diseases, crop failure, floods and other consequences,” Kanyanga said.

“For every bag of charcoal produced, only a maximum of 20 percent of the tree resource is used … It’s a great loss. If we can save some trees now, we would save lives, wildlife, and improve the quality of life,” Safieddine said.

The new technologies have not been widely promoted and few rural Zambians, the main users of wood fuel, are applying them. A feasibility study on the use of biogas in 2007 by Practical Action Southern Africa, a development NGO, found that Zambia was not ready for a large-scale biogas promotion programme.

“The experience with the technology is still nascent and the necessary institutional, technological and market capacity has not been tested nor developed. Knowledge and confidence in the technology is still restricted to foreign examples, and the little that has been done in country has failed,” the study commented.

“The target population, mainly rural small-scale farmers, although in need of alternatives to current fuelwood-intensive household energy solutions, are still to be turned into an effective demand.”

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