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Coal the new weapon to stop desert advance

[Niger] Keita Desert in Niger.
Desert expands as trees chopped for firewood (FAO)

Coal may seem like an unlikely weapon to stop the Sahara advancing, but the Niger government is marketing it as an alternative to firewood in order to save the country's forests and slow desertification.

The government is halfway through a year-long campaign to make coal more popular, taking out adverts on television and radio and sending delegations from the Mines and Energy Ministry across the West African nation to talk to local leaders.

"This energy source can contribute to the fight against the spectacular advance of the desert into our country," the government website explains.

Some 98 percent of Niger's 11 million inhabitants use firewood for cooking and the felling of trees is encouraging desertification, warn environmentalists.

"Four-fifths of the country is desert and in rural areas in particular there's not a single household which doesn't use wood to cook," forestry expert and environmental consultant Ahamadou Mahamadou told IRIN.

While environmentalists pressure Western nations to wean themselves off fossil fuels like coal, some experts in Niger say coal is a lesser evil for their landlocked country, situated on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert.

"This situation is destroying the ground vegetation on a daily basis and is unfortunately intensifying desertification. I think that with coal, our sparse forests could be saved," he said.

The government wants two percent of households to switch to coal mined in Niger in the short-term, rising to 50 percent in the medium-term.

"Of course it's often difficult to change the habits of a lifetime but we are convinced that lots of our people will make the switch," Mines Minister Rabiou Hassane Yari said in a debate on national television this week.

In the television adverts, the camera pans across a desert landscape with scant greenery before following trucks, camels and donkeys transporting wood into towns. It then cuts to images of coal mining operations, sacks of the fuel and finally a local woman cooking with coal in a smoke-free kitchen.

Housewife Maimouna Idi is one woman won over by the new fuel -- currently selling in promotional 40 kilo bags for 4,000 CFA (US $7).

"You only need a few lumps of coal to cook a meal for your average family of five," she told IRIN in the Niger capital, Niamey.

"Price-wise, there's no comparison with wood which is twice as expensive," she added.

Maimouna Moussa is another coal convert.

"It burns without smoking the place out, and gives out a lot of heat. In no time at all, I've finished cooking," she explained.
So far the government has distributed a token 30 tons of coal to each of the eight regions, but, the Mines Minister said, the project is gathering steam.

"It's a successful operation which is growing. In fact we are now worried that the production capacity of the pilot plant won't be able to keep up with national demand," Hassane Yari told this week's television debate, saying that local company Sonichar was looking to build another plant to process the coal.

"Even if today, the coal reserves at Tchirozerine (1,000 km north of the capital) are not enough to supply the national demand, estimated at about 780,000 tonnes, we think with the discovery of the important bed of coal discovered at Takanamat (in central Niger), we will be able to cope," the minister added.

Ministry officials declined to say how much the coal campaign, which runs until the end of the year, is costing the government. But in a country where the World Bank estimates 63 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, there are future financial rewards as well as environmental ones to be reaped from the project, as Niger President Mamadou Tandja explained at the launch.

"If in Niger, we have a million households who use coal to the tune of 100 CFA a day, that makes 100 million CFA. So per year we could reach 36 billion CFA (US$ 67 million) -- here's something, which is available in our country, that could bring some comfort to the economy," Tandja said.

And there would be a knock-on effect on the country's accounts, according to the government website.

"Using this energy source will also help reduce the deficit in the balance of payments," it says, without giving further details.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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