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Usage of Charcoal/Biomass Killing 4.3 million annually– mainly women and children.

Written by on February 17, 2021

By Amy

Charcoal and other solid biomass fuels are still used in 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, killing over 4 million people annually and depleting forests, in turn reducing rainfall and contributing to climate change and other impacts.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Sub-Saharan Africa to avert a charcoal-induced public health and environmental catastrophe, and in the process strengthen its clean energy independence and economic growth.

Charcoal is used mainly for cooking by the urban and peri-urban poor; firewood is used by rural populations. Urbanization – at its highest in Sub-Saharan Africa and projected to double there in the next 25 years– overwhelmingly drives charcoal’s raising demand in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The use of charcoal and other biomass is estimated to kill 4.3 million annually– mainly women and children exposed to smoke from cooking charcoal indoors, causing acute respiratory illnesses, cataracts, heart disease and cancer.
Global firewood use is expected to plateau over the next 20 years while charcoal will continue to rise, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This week the National Forestry Authority- NFA has impounded 600 bags of charcoal in Gulu and Amuru districts. 300 bags were impounded from the charcoal dealers` camp in Patiko Sub County in Gulu district on Tuesday evening. Another 300 bags were impounded on Monday evening from Apaa Junction in Pabbo Sub County Amuru district aboard a vehicle destined for Kampala but without movement permits.

The operation was conducted jointly by the NFA enforcement personnel and the Police Environmental Police Protection Unit following a tip-off from concerned citizens. Haruna says that they also impounded three power saws that were being used by the illegal charcoal dealers to indiscriminately cut trees for charcoal burning.

Dozens of charcoal heaps and logs and kilns were also destroyed from the charcoal dealers camp during the operation in Patiko Sub County. Eight people were also arrested during the operation and they are being held at Gulu Central Police Station for destroying tree species.

Added to this, Charcoal production severely impacts tropical forest ecosystem services (e.g., shade, soil and water retention, water regulation, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat) and reduces overall ecosystem resilience.

Catherine Nabukalu (with a degree in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania), noticed that charcoal was often left out of the conversation about energy sources and their contribution to global carbon emissions. “I’m African, and I’ve used charcoal personally,” says Nabukalu. “It’s not fun to use, cooking is often not a healthy or enjoyable experience, but it’s a big part of the energy mix. It’s not the only source, but it’s one of them.”

Nabukalu and Gieré (a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science), note the health impacts of cooking with charcoal, especially when done without proper ventilation.

“Burning biomass of any kind, whether it is firewood or charcoal, in a confined space exposes those nearby to fumes containing gases and particulates,” says Gieré. “Similarly, producing the charcoal generates vapors during the pyrolysis process, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane, which all deteriorates air quality in the area surrounding the kilns.”

Moving on from charcoal in Sub-Saharan Africa will require innovative energy sources and means of delivery.

For example, some entrepreneurs in Africa are marketing organic waste-based briquettes such as banana skins, from human excretion, maize cobs, sugar cane waste and wood pellet-fired cook stoves, solar power to replace charcoal among others. All in attempt to help reduce deforestation, damage to women’s health, and mitigate climate change, with support from governments, civil society and private sector entrepreneurs via the methods outlined above.

The NFA should on top of activities as mentioned above, also include awareness of the dangers of deforestation and creating alternative charcoal fuel sources. Encouraging such communities to embrace these forms of energy to save the planet and also improve their wellbeing through entrepreneurship ideas such as adding value to the briquettes by packaging for export and also internal urban market.


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