Burned Up

Rural communities in South Africa are quickly depleting the wood in surrounding savannas, and this cheap source of energy could be gone in 13 years, scientists say.

Although electricity is available to about half of the people living in South Africa’s rural areas, the majority of households still rely on wood for heat and cooking — mainly because electric stoves and electricity are too expensive. Every year, the country’s rural communities burn about 4.5 to 6.7 million tonnes of fuelwood.

To find out if these practices are sustainable, researchers surveyed woody plants over 25,000 hectares of South Africa’s Lowveld region. Wood became more sparse in areas closer to rural households. For example, the team found about 25 tonnes per hectare 2,400 meters away from one community but only 10 tonnes per hectare within 1,000 meters of the community.

The researchers also took a closer look at a town called Justicia, where about two-thirds of households use only fuelwood. Even while taking woodland regrowth into account, the team estimates that the village would run out of woody plants in 13 years.

People living in African savannas need more cheap energy options to stave off a crisis with “dire ecological and socio-economic consequences,” the authors write in Environmental Research Letters. But they conclude by looking on the bright side, noting that these rural communities may have an opportunity “to ‘leapfrog’ past fossil fuel dependency to more efficient and renewable energy sources.” Roberta Kwok | 22 January 2013

Source: Wessels, K.J. et al. 2013. Unsustainable fuelwood extraction from South African savannas. Environmental Research Letters doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/014007.

Image © schankz | Shutterstock.com


1 Comment

  • Joy January 23, 2013 at 11:01 am

    Well no surprises there. Anyone who has done any work on environmental issues in sub-Saharan Africa knows that forests are depleted near towns, and that construction of new roads is immediately followed by forest depletion farther away. You can predict it fairly easily based on transport time and population. But you forgot to mention that people in towns usually cook on charcoal, which is easier to use indoors than wood – and charcoal consumes far more forest resources than cooking directly on wood. This has all been clear for at leas 40 years.

    And people have been working on “improved cookstoves” and “alternative energy sources” for just as long, with very little success. The “more efficient and renewable energy sources” the authors speak of are too expensive, and usually don’t allow people to cook as they wish to or know how to. They also don’t provide the warmth and light of fires, nor the communal setting that the fire does. The problems, and the impacts on forests, have been clear for decades. The solutions still are not.


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