WHAT IS THE CHALLENGE ?
In the 1950’s, approximately 35% of the total land area was covered by forests. Today that figure has sunk to less than 3%.
Areas of Central Eastern Africa, including parts of Ethiopia, have seen dramatic deforestation due to drier climate, population growth, increased demand for farmland and extensive use of wood as a building material and for firewood. The removal of trees without sufficient reforestation has resulted in damage to the environment and biodiversity, and has significantly reduced the environment’s ability to capture CO2.
In the following section, we will discuss the causes of deforestation and try to put the wood-based household into a wider perspective on deforestation. How big is the problem? And what are the consequences, for individuals and for the environment?
CAUSES OF DEFORESTATION
The major factors responsible for the drastic loss of forests in Ethiopia include rapid population growth, forest areas cleared for agriculture, and house-building and food preparation traditions that are based on wood. Let’s look more closely at each of these consequences.
Ethiopia has the highest current birthrate in Africa with 3.13% (2017). This leads to more food production to feed more mouths. Increased food production requires that more forests need to be cleared. This makes Ethiopia’s rapid population growth one of the main drivers of deforestation. Forests have been cleared for much needed agricultural land, needed to feed a rapidly growing population. People with relatively large families have only a small amount of farm land at their disposal. As a result, they cannot afford to allow their fields lie fallow. Over cropping quickly depletes the soil of nutrients, the land loses its ability to produce food without chemical fertilizers. More than 70% of Ethiopia’s population is living on degraded lands.
About 85% of the Ethiopian work force gains their livelihood from agriculture. Most people live in rural areas or small villages, close to their land. But Ethiopia also needs to generate hard currency, and the government’s current policy is to move towards more intensive food production for domestic consumption as well as to attract foreign investors (agribusinesses) that can help to build infrastructure and raise exports (e.g. flowers). Coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export and generates the most foreign exchange. With a growing population, Ethiopia needs more food to feed its own rapidly growing population. During the past 30 years, more and more forest has been cut down and cleared in order to increase agricultural production. This has been one of the major drives for deforestation.
Another important – yet largely neglected – factor that has contributed to deforestation in Ethiopia is the fact that millions of households have, for centuries, been wood-based. That is to say, the house itself is built of wood, food is cooked using wood, and lighting in the evenings is often a wood fire. SEA’s mission is to support Ethiopians in making a transition from wood-based households to wood-saving households.
For hundreds of years, the only affordable house for the vast majority of Ethiopia’s population has been the traditional chika house. This well-known wattle and daub design is wood-intensive. Rough estimates indicate that building an average size chika house (4 x 6 m) uses 3-5 m³ of wood and costs the equivalent of 3-4 years’ salary. Where it once served a smaller population well, this house-building tradition has become a significant threat to Ethiopia’s remaining forests and a significant burden on the individual household economy.
In addition to the wood-intensive design that characterizes traditional houses, approximately 70% of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million uses wood for cooking food and lighting. We know that food preparation in Africa as a whole accounts for an astonishing 65% of all wood – used for any purpose!
It is interesting to note that while the Ethiopian government’s Climate Resilient Green Development Program (CRGDP) discusses alternatives to wood-based cooking; it does not mention alternatives to the wood-based chika house. SEA wants to play a vital role in filling this gap.
Many Ethiopians today are hoping for a better standard of living and a more modern and technically improved house. Unfortunately, the traditional chika house that most of them are living in has become more and more expensive. Perhaps more importantly it has become a growing threat to the environment and one of the significant drivers for deforestation.
SEA’s addresses wood-intensive drivers for deforestation directly. In the following this 3 factors will be explained in more depth. Only one of these causes – the use of wood for food preparation, admittedly the most significant one – is being addressed by the Ethiopian government’s Climate Resilient Green Development Plan (CRGDP). Wood used in the building houses as well as for lighting accounts for about 35% of all wood/bio-mass produced annually. This means that SEA is addressing two major, yet almost completely neglected, drivers for deforestation! We want to be a voice reminding policy makers that mitigating the effects of deforestation in in these two key areas should be added to the existing measures being taken to address the challenges posed by deforestation. These challenges directly affect the country as a whole, as well as individual Ethiopian households in particular.
A house-building tradition that uses wood
A growing population means more houses are needed each year. Ethiopians are used to building their houses with wood which was once a plentiful resource. Not anymore! At the turn of the 19th century about 30/45% of Ethiopia was covered by forest. By the early 1950’s this figure had dropped to about 16% and by the early 1990’s it had further dropped to under 3%. These figures present a devastating conclusion: A building tradition which once served well when there were fewer people and more trees, now contributes to poverty and threatens Ethiopia’s few remaining forests.
Wood houses that don’t last as long as they once did – Why? Indigenous species like juniper, acacia and kosso that grow slowly have largely disappeared and been replaced by eucalyptus a species introduced from Australia in the early 1900’s. Eucalyptus grows very quickly but has several drawbacks. It rots quickly, draws so much water that where eucalyptus dominates, the water table is lowered. And it is particularly susceptive to attacks by termites. The aggressive spread of termites, particularly in certain parts of the country, means that even more wood houses need to be built.
Cooking food with wood and charcoal
Over 90% of the energy consumed in Ethiopia comes from bio-mass — wood, charcoal, branches, dung and agricultural residues. All of these produce smoke and harmful emissions when burned.
About 80% of the food in Ethiopia is cooked on a wood or charcoal fire, 7 days a week, 365 days a year! This means that over 80 million people use wood to prepare their food.
It is estimated that the average household uses 11 kg of wood-equivalent per day, or 4 metric tons annually. Assuming 5 persons per household, this translates into a total of 16 million metric tons of wood per year!
Wood used for cooking accounts for about 65% of all the wood cut down in Africa.
A rapidly growing population not only needs more food but more wood to prepare that food.
Government and NGO efforts to introduce more clean-burning fuel stoves have generally met with limited success in Africa in general, and in Ethiopia in particular.
Wood used for fires that give light
Wood fires are used in the evening so that families without electricity can have light. The sun goes down early in Ethiopia, around 6:00 pm, and young people need light to be able to do their homework.
CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION
SEA has chosen to concentrate on deforestation because, more than any other single factor, deforestation has made the wood-based household a poverty trap. Deforestation drastically threatens food-security. Future generations will not be able to grow enough food. And finally, less forests mean that more CO2 is released into the atmosphere. This contributes to changing patterns of rainfall and global warming. Let’s look more closely at each of these consequences.
Wood for building houses has become more and more expensive
As wood has become scarcer, it has become more expensive. The result is that fewer people can afford to buy the wood needed to build houses which need replacing. This in turn means that the living conditions for millions of children, youth, women and men are worsened.
Wood for cooking food and building fires for lighting is harder to find
This is a particular burden for those who cannot afford to buy charcoal. Cutting down trees and producing charcoal are illegal in Ethiopia, though this law is currently not being enforced. What else can people use to cook their food? In the poorest families, women and children are those who must walk farther and farther from home to find firewood—and water! Gathering firewood is very hard work indeed!
Loss of forests results in erosion, and erosion results in drastically reduced food security
Increased deforestation means that roots no longer hold on to the upper soil layers and are more easily eroded by wind and water. Each year the Blue Nile carries with it Ethiopia’s “black gold”, depositing it in Sudan and Egypt. Combined with soil depletion where fields on not left to lie fallow, erosion is another driver for reduced soil fertility. The result is that Ethiopia’s arable land will produce less and less food per person. During the previous 25 years, food production per person was steadily on the way up, and the number of malnourished persons was on the way down. But with an exploding increase in population and continued deforestation, this trend is now reversed. During the next 35 years, food production per inhabitant is expected to drop by almost 50%, from 2300 calories/day in 2015 to 1300 calories/day by 2050
The soil has been depleted of natural organic matter and minerals. In Norway, if the erosion rate exceeds 100 kg of topsoil/dekar/year, compensational measures must be taken. In Ethiopia, the current average rate of erosion is 20,000 kg/dekar/year. And in the Lake Tana area, close to the source of the Nile River, the loss of “black gold” is an astonishing 70,000 kg/dekar/year! Another major factor impacting reduced food production is changing patterns of rainfall
Termites and the use of eucalyptus have drastically reduced the lifespan of the traditional chika wood house
Lacking a natural habitat, termites attack wood houses. Reforestation in Ethiopia has had several negative effects. Instead of planting indigenous species of trees like juniper, the government, starting in the early 1900’s decided to import eucalyptus from Australia (picture). While eucalyptus grows much faster than indigenous species, it draws up enormous amounts of water. This results in lowering the water table. Also, the structure of eucalyptus wood is much less dense than indigenous species, making it more susceptible to termite attacks.
Termites are a relatively recent threat to the traditional house-building technique in Ethiopia. They can do great damage to unprotected buildings and other wooden structures. Their habit of remaining concealed makes detecting their presence difficult. In areas of severe deforestation, termites can reduce the lifespan of a traditional chika house to as little as 5-7 years.
How Solid Earth Africa’s work supports UN and Ethiopia development goals:
- Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy – Green Economy Strategy
- UN sustainable development goals