Utility price hikes push demand for wood in Tanzania
MBEYA, Tanzania (AlertNet) – Soaring gas and electricity prices in Tanzania are forcing more and more people to return to the use of charcoal and wood for heating and cooking, threatening the country’s forests and contributing to climate change.
Following electricity price hikes of up to 25 percent in December last year, even the country’s middle classes on reasonable incomes are resorting to cheaper sources of fuel.
Solving the problem will require improved technologies to enable charcoal production using fewer trees and the use of efficient cooking stoves, as well as greater investment in solar power and biogas, experts say.
But for now, rising demand for charcoal and wood will complicate Tanzania’s efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation under the United Nations REDD+ mechanism, aimed at curbing climate change.
“I used to mostly depend on electricity and gas for lighting, ironing, laundry, cooking and other accessories like TV, radio and the computer, but now I can’t afford it. It’s very expensive and it makes life much more difficult, so I supplement with charcoal,” said Justina Mashiba, 35, a legal officer with the Tanzania Revenue Authority.
Mashiba, who has a family of seven and earns a middle class income by Tanzanian standards, now uses natural gas and charcoal for fuel but still spends about 50,000 Tanzanian shillings ($40) a month on electricity just for lighting and ironing and to power the TV, radio, computer and other accessories.
She uses gas to make tea and soup, and goes through about 15 kg of gas in two months, she said. But she uses charcoal to prepare beans and rice that take longer to cook, and for boiling water for bathing.
The Tanzania Energy and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority approved a steep rise in electricity tariffs in mid-December, a move that shocked consumers suddenly asked to pay 22 to 25 percent more for power.
Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) also tripled in price between December and January.
“The rise of electricity and gas tariffs has affected me greatly,” said Happy Masisi, a 38-year-old civil servant from Dar es Salaam. “Where do I get the difference?”
It now costs Masisi 44 Tanzanian shillings ($30) to buy 28 kg of gas, which lasts her a month. That is about a third of the average minimum wage of Tanzanian civil servants, which stood at 135,000 Tanzanian shillings ($90) per month, according to 2010 figures. Housemaids earn less than half that amount.
“About 75 percent of Tanzanian workers earn between 200,000 and 500,000 Tanzanian shillings per month so now you can see how difficult life is,” said Njaa Kibwana, the Mbeya regional secretary for the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania.
“Remember you have other commitments like children, education, feeding the family, house rent and clothing - all have shot up alarmingly,” he added.
RISING PRODUCTION COSTS
Electricity companies say a rise in production costs, particularly high prices for fuel to run generators, have forced them to push up their tariffs, as has the depreciation of the Tanzanian shilling, which has pushed up prices for both equipment and imported gas.
“All electrical equipment and gas are quoted in U.S. dollars,” said Christopher Mbwiga, an engineer with the Tanzania Electrical Company, TANESCO.
The company has had to add gas-driven generators to meet fast rising demand for electricity, particularly as extended droughts – believed linked to climate change – have hurt the country’s dominant hydropower generation. It has not invested heavily in other more environmentally friendly renewable energy generation, officials said, because such projects take longer to bring online.
Despite widespread complaints about higher power tariffs, however, TANESCO General Manager William Mhando said the company needs to raise them even higher to meet its costs.
“We requested an increase in our tariffs but what has been approved (by the government) is still little compared to our actual running costs,” Mhando told AlertNet by telephone.
“Most of our power generation depends on fuel. For example, in places like Kigoma (in the west), Mtwara and Lindi (in the southeast), we import spare parts so running costs are very high,” he added.
The company at times sees it revenues fall 10 percent short of its operating costs, Mhando said, noting that the company’s last tariff hike was in 2007.
The company shortfalls are in part the result of Tanzania opening its power market to private companies in 1992. The new firms have concentrated on supplying the more profitable urban markets, leaving the state company to supply isolated regions of the country at higher cost.
TANESCO still dominates Tanzania’s power industry, however, operating the grid system and providing power from hydropower systems and fossil fuels.
Normally, just over half of Tanzania’s energy needs are supplied by hydropower and the remainder from natural gas and other fossil fuels.
The actual mix of power sources can vary, however, depending on the availability of water and other fuels. At present, for example, a shortage of rain has affected hydropower generation, leading to power rationing.
FORESTS UNDER PRESSURE
The government accepts that the rising electricity tariffs will lead to greater pressure on the country’s forests.
“The issue is very complex now, but so far it has been very difficult to stop people from cutting trees,” said Environment Minister Terezya Huvisa.
“We insist on agro forest - people should plant trees in their farms for harvesting - and the use of improved stoves.”
The country may get some help with efforts to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in the form of a $26 million grant from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to support solar energy and biogas projects in Tanzania. GEF provides grants to developing countries to address climate change and other environmental challenges.
Other experts say finding ways to make charcoal more efficiently and to cook food using less of it can help protect the country’s forests.
“We can’t stop charcoal, but we can reduce it through improved technologies that add efficiency, like producing charcoal using less trees and improved stoves that cut charcoal consumption by 50 percent,” Pius Yanda, coordinator of the country’s National REDD Task Force, told AlertNet by telephone.
Tanzania is currently facing worsening power shortages that have brought power rationing and led to a brisk trade in small generators as people try to protect against blackouts.
Longer-term plans to address the situation involve the harnessing of renewable geothermal and wind energy as well as tapping hydropower at Stiegler’s Gorge in the Selous National Park.
Felix Mwakyembe is a freelance writer based in Dar es Salaam.