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.

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