The dwindling reserves of fuelwood in Africa have been illuminated in a new study published today, which shows a bleak outlook for supplies across savannas in South Africa.
Presenting their findings in IOP Publishing's journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers have found that at current consumption levels in the communal areas of Lowveld, South Africa, reserves of fuelwood could be totally exhausted within 13 years.
The consequences are significant, with around half of the 2.4 million rural households in the country using wood as their primary fuel source, burning between four and seven million tonnes per year.
Consumption of fuelwood is greater across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, which includes countries significantly less developed than South Africa – around 80 per cent of households rely on fuelwood as their primary energy source.
The researchers measured the amount of biomass currently covering the study areas using the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) – an aircraft loaded with state-of-the-art imaging systems (funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation).
The CAO was flown at an altitude of 2000 metres across 30 000 hectares of land and a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) system was used to calculate tree height by firing millions of laser pulses down to the ground and measuring the time it takes for the light to return to the aircraft.
The study area included Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand Game Reserve and communal areas in the Bushbuck Ridge municipality. The result was a set of tree height maps from which biomass maps were generated.
The researchers selected the village of Justicia as a model for calculating how reserves of fuelwood could be reduced under different consumption scenarios. They found that under current consumption rates, the fuelwood around this area would be totally exhausted within 13 years; however, locals could stop collecting at least two to three years in advance of this if the quality and density of fuelwood becomes too low.
They also showed that households using fuelwood would need to be reduced by 15 per cent a year for eight years, until only 20 per cent of total households are using it, before biomass stabilises to a sustainable level.
"Despite significant electrification of rural households in South Africa, large amounts of fuelwood are still being extracted from savannah woodlands," said lead-author of the letter Konrad Wessels.
"Rural households need to reduce fuelwood use in favour of other energy alternatives. Currently the only viable alternative is electric stoves, but the switch to electric stoves has been slow, apparently due to the cost of stoves and electricity, as well as cultural preferences. Furthermore, since unemployment is high, there is ample labour to collect free fuelwood, even as it becomes scarce."
"The use of alternative sources of energy for cooking should be promoted to balance out the current unsustainable rate of fuel wood extraction; however, it will still require interventions aimed at general poverty reduction, and culturally acceptable energy alternatives."
From Friday 18 January this paper can be downloaded.
Notes to Editors
1. For further information, a full draft of the journal paper or contact with one of the researchers, contact IOP Press Officer, Michael Bishop:
Tel: 0117 930 1032
Unsustainable fuelwood extraction from South African savannas
2. The published version of the paper 'Unsustainable fuelwood extraction from South African savannas' (K J Wessels et al 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 014007) will be freely available online from Friday 18 January.
Environmental Research Letters
3. Environmental Research Letters is an open access journal that covers all of environmental science, providing a coherent and integrated approach including research articles, perspectives and editorials.
4. IOP Publishing provides publications through which leading-edge scientific research is distributed worldwide. IOP Publishing is central to the Institute of Physics (IOP), a not-for-profit society. Any financial surplus earned by IOP Publishing goes to support science through the activities of IOP.Beyond our traditional journals programme, we make high-value scientific information easily accessible through an ever-evolving portfolio of community websites, magazines, conference proceedings and a multitude of electronic services. Focused on making the most of new technologies, we're continually improving our electronic interfaces to make it easier for researchers to find exactly what they need, when they need it, in the format that suits them best. Go to http://ioppublishing.org/.
The Institute of Physics
5. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society. We are a charitable organisation with a worldwide membership of more than 45,000, working together to advance physics education, research and application. We engage with policymakers and the general public to develop awareness and understanding of the value of physics and, through IOP Publishing, we are world leaders in professional scientific communications. Go to www.iop.org.
AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert! system.