In my last article I explored some of the effects of the massive environmental degradation this country has suffered. I attempted to show that the prolonged blackouts we are continuously experiencing are chiefly the result of environmental degradation. We have carelessly cleared our forest reserves on hills, mountains and in catchment areas. There used to be, for example, a huge and dark forest on the left side of the road as one drove to Likuni. Today, that whole area is clear and may be demarcated into residential plots.
In the words of an old adage, you cannot eat your cake and have it.
Efforts to preserve what remains of our environment are meager and diffused. Brutal force against environmental offenders does not seem to produce the desired results.
A few months ago I visited Mchinji. On arrival at the Boma I witnessed a spectacle involving the police and some women. A police vehicle suddenly pulled up at the bus station. Two gentlemen jumped out like threatened mice from an escape hole and dashed for charcoal bags that an unsuspecting woman had. She tried to save at least one bag by hurriedly loading it onto a nearby minibus. It was too late. The officers seized that one too.
The poor lady was visibly shaken to the core by this experienced and was left cursing the “cruel” officers who snatched the merchandise on which she had spent a fortune that she could ill afford. Many onlookers sympathised with the lady and gave the officers many unpleasant names.
Environmental degradation can only effectively be fought at community level. For starters, everybody must be made aware that it is a reality and it has unpalatable effects. It worries me that many commentators wholly attribute power blackouts to real or imaged incompetence of Escom or Egenco staff. While incompetence, inefficiencies and political interference may indeed play some role, they are variables that can be changed at the drop of a hat, and there will still be blackouts. Over the past 21 years we have seen a third as many Escom CEOs , with hardly any change. We need to tackle the problem at its roots, not superficially.
Squatting on marginal lands, for example, is an environmental hazard that can cause rivers to dry up or soil erosion to be intensified. Both are bad for power generation and yet those who settle in marginal areas do not so much as spare a thought for power users.
Another vice the majority of us are guilty of is use of charcoal. Therae is hardly a household in our urban centres that does not use charcoal. A whole elaborate distribution chain exits for charcoal because of the high demand for the commodity. Households get it from retailers who in turn get it from middlemen/women (the lady I saw at Mchinji Boma was a middlewoman). The middlemen buy the commodity from the burners, who create it via the process of gasification of wood. The wood is obtained from illegal logging of trees. Charcoal burning is probably the chief culprit of deforestation.
I once visited a certain village at Chikuli, beyond Chileka. There were not many young men in the village when I visited. Many of them had gone out to burn charcoal. I learnt that at that time charcoal burning was anything but straightforward as the trees had all been razed and the charcoal burners were having to rely on roots instead.
When charcoal burning starts in any area, it is time to say goodbye to forests in that area. When forests are gone, rivers cannot hold water throughout the year. Surface run-off is high, as is soil erosion, when it rains. These problems result in massive impairment of power generation by hydro means, which is what we rely on in this country.
If demand for charcoal is curtailed so will be charcoal burning and deforestation. I almost hear somebody retort with “What other source of energy can we use since Escom hardly gives us power these days?” Agreed, these are tough times but we must find an alternative to charcoal. Gas is a possibility. When I last checked, the price of gas was prohibitive compared to electricity or charcoal. But I believe with rising demand, the gas providers will up their game, driving prices down. Another alternative is the age old paraffin. We need to re-introduce the primus stoves and the pressurized paraffin irons we once used and let life go on without charcoal. It can be done.
We need to search within ourselves and make sure we are not among those that make up the demand for charcoal. n