Record charcoal prices in Somalia's self-declared independent region of Somaliland are threatening the livelihoods of many poor urban families who have limited alternative energy sources.
"Charcoal prices in Somaliland have increased in the past six months from 25,000 [Somaliland] shillings [US$5.50] per 25kg sack to 40,000 shillings [$7.50], making it difficult to us to buy charcoal, which we depend on to cook food for our families," Muna Ahmed, an internally displaced mother of nine, told IRIN. "We are now suffering; we do not know what to cook with."
The average urban household uses two to three bags of charcoal per month. In 2005, this monthly expenditure was about $10.
Abdi-Risak Bashir Libah, an environmental director at Candlelight for Health, Education and Environment, an NGO, said: "Because of the increasing urban population in Somaliland and the high demand for charcoal, its prices will increase even more. The problem will continue, unless alternatives are found.”
Some 95 percent of Somaliland’s 1.6m urban residents – about half the total population – use charcoal as their main source of cooking energy. This amounts to an annual consumption of some two million bags and up to 2.5 million trees, according to a 2007 report by the Academy for Peace and Development (APD).
The consequent deforestation reduces rainfall, soil depth and grass cover in Somaliland, where up to 65 percent of the population are pastoralists. As the viability of this livelihood diminishes, many pastoralists have turned to charcoal production to make ends meet, further accelerating the deforestation.
In an effort to slow down this vicious cycle, the government has imposed load limits on charcoal trucks, and is working on longer-term solutions, according to Abdikarim Aden Omar, director of the Environment Department in Somaliland's Ministry of Livestock, Environment and Pastoralist Development.
"We know that prices of woodland charcoal have increased, even though it is the only energy for cooking in Somaliland; but as a ministry, we can't do anything in the short term. Our plan is to put in place a long-term strategy, which includes searching for investments in coal [of which Somaliland has considerable unexploited deposits], solar, and gas energy sources," Omar said.
In 2005, a presidential task force was set up to look into alternatives to charcoal, but political upheavals in the country interfered. “After we discussed the issue, we agreed to send some people to India to get more experience, because India uses cattle waste as cooking energy,” Somaliland's former vice-president, Ahmed Yusuf Yasin, told IRIN. “But before we did that, the new government came in [after parliamentary elections in September 2005].”
Libah says Candlelight has also been exploring alternatives to charcoal. "We have urged the government to decrease taxes on gas and kerosene stoves as well as on natural gas," he said. The organization also promotes more fuel-efficient stoves and the use of mesquite, an invasive plant that has been expanding in Somaliland over the past 20 years.
While using kerosene to cook would cost the average household some $14.30 a month, only about 5 percent of the population uses this fuel because it is not well known and supplies have been unreliable in the past.
Liquefied petroleum gas is another option, but one 11kg cylinder requires a $45 deposit, with each refill costing around $20 and lasting the average household about 20 days. Another deterrent is the widespread belief that the cylinders tend to explode.
Electrical energy is also beyond the reach of most households, with each kilowatt/hour costing about $1, one of the highest rates in the world.
However, for major shifts to take effect and for the high charcoal prices to push people toward alternatives, solutions cannot come from communities and the business sector alone, according to Candlelight executive director, Ahmad Ibrahim Awale.
“Viable solutions can work but they lack necessary support, promotion and social marketing from development agencies,” he said.
“The link between deforestation and recurring droughts should also be clearly highlighted. A political will and commitment from the government to support the process through enactment of conducive polices, tax exemption from all alternative energies, will also play a pivotal role facilitating such shift.”
Mohamed Hashi Elmi, Somaliland’s Minister of Finance, says such steps are being taken.
"Somaliland government is encouraging everything to stop charcoal use and environmental degradation in the country. We have already made 100 percent tax cuts on imported LPG equipment and we will do the same for gas stove importers,” he said.
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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions