HARARE – Zimbabwe’s latest electricity tariff hikes are threatening to further destroy the country’s environment.

Demand for firewood is likely to rise as consumers resort to cheaper forms of energy.

The Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority approved a 292% power tariff hike in August, and followed up with another 320% in October 2019.

This means many urban consumers have been priced out of electricity.

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According to the energy regulator, the steep prices are meant to manage demand owing to water depletion to 15% capacity at Kariba dam for hydro-power generation.

“As they fix the left hand of things, they have worsened the right hand of things”, environmentalist Simon Bere told ENN, giving reference to the environmental damages being caused by illegal loggers as they look for alternative energy solutions.

Between March 4, 2019 and March 21, 2019 Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar and Malawi experienced one of Africa’s worst tropical cyclones – Cyclone Idai, which killed over 1,300 people, with many more people reported missing to this day. Cyclone Idai’s highest   wind speed reached 205 km/hour and caused property damages of more than US$2 billion, leaving more than 3 million people vulnerable, according official reports. The environment was not spared by cyclone Idai: trees were uprooted, dams were silted, river streams were altered, and flat lands were eroded. The warmer the air above an ocean, the higher the risk of experiencing a tropical cyclone, scientists claim. As the realities of climate change begin to affect Southern Africa, environmental conservation practices are pivotal in mitigating their impact. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe, economy induced energy challenges threaten to ravage the environment further.

With the country already experiencing a drought induced food crisis that has exposed 3 million Zimbabwean citizens to starvation, the wholesale cutting down of trees by urban and rural societies for consumption and enterprising purposes has exposed the populace to deeper challenges ahead, including soil erosion, high temperatures, siltation and low rainfall patterns. These environmental risks can drive Zimbabwe into another drought patch. Addressing local delegates at an energy event in Harare last week, Zimbabwe Energy Minister Fortune Chasi   confirmed that water levels at Kariba dam had dropped to alarming levels of 15%. Kariba dam is the largest man-made water catchment in Zimbabwe. At its peak, the Kariba dam supplies 1,626 megawatts (2,181,000 hp) of electricity to parts of both Zambia and Zimbabwe and generates 6,400 gigawatt-hours (23,000 TJ) per annum. The Kariba South hydro power station generates up to 1050 megawatts of electricity on its own, making it the biggest power generation plant in Zimbabwe. In the face of climate change which has depleted water levels in Kariba dam to 15% of capacity, Kariba South Power Station has been restricted to a power generation of 358 megawatts from July 2019 to date. The Kariba case is one of the many rude awakenings Zimbabwe will endure in future if it does not join hands in fighting climate change.

Mutare is Zimbabwe’s 4th largest city with an estimated urban population of 188,243 and rural population of approximately 260,567. It is the capital city of Manicaland province, a province once famed for its massive forests, including the tree plantations for now defunct Mutare Board and Paper Mills. Resettled farmers chaotically decimated these tree plantations after the government initiated land reform exercise of year 2000. Consequentially, Zimbabwe imports all its newsprint and bond paper requirements from South Africa as there is neither a local manufacturer nor the primary resources. Foreign currency being used to secure newsprint and bond paper by Zimbabwe today   could have been used to build its torn economy. In a 2016 news report, state media publication Manica Post claimed that the Manicaland province was losing 45000 hectares of its forests to deforestation annually. Key drivers of this environmental scourge were cited as tobacco curing, agriculture land expansion, firewood selling and charcoal making. Three years down the lane, this environmental cancer has viciously resurfaced, but this time in urban and rural settings of all the provinces in Zimbabwe as energy woes and economic challenges worsen.

At the 2019 Climate Action Summit, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres strongly said, “The best science, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells us that any temperature rise above 1.5 degrees will lead to major and irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support us. Science tells us that on our current path, we face at least 3-degrees Celsius of global heating by the end of the century. The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win. This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiation summit. You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.”

After this Summit, the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) committed to increasing its climate ambition and maintaining the forest cover of Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea, allowing the Central African rainforest to continue to provide livelihoods of 60 million people and maintain regional rainfall patterns.

Contrary to Secretary General António Guterres’ climate action cry at the United Nations Climate Action Summit held in September this year, Zimbabwe has registered a significant regression in its climate actions, leaving the country and the SADC region exposed to the consequences of climate change. “At its current rate of deforestation and without immediate environmental interventions, Zimbabwe will degenerate into a desert in the next twenty years, overtaking to the 40 year projection given by environment experts last year,” Bere alleged.

According to a 2016 census, 67% of Zimbabwe’s population is rural, with the remaining 33% living in urban centres. With the high electricity tariffs, high costs of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and a biting economic situation in Zimbabwe, the environment is bearing the brunt as vulnerable nationals resort to firewood as a cheaper alternative source of energy for cooking and heating purposes.

A few environmental advocates remain active in Zimbabwe, with the Friends of the Environment (FOTE), a voluntary organisation, and a number of supporting entities continuing to fight against deforestation through rolling out reforestation programmes. As Zimbabwe observes its national tree planting day in December 2019, it is an opportunity to refocus on the environment and to amplify its reforestation efforts, in the process saving mankind from adverse effects of climate change.