For years, energy experts and foresters have believed that the poor will eat away the forests of the developing world like locusts in order to meet their ever-growing firewood demand.
The firewood crisis has not resulted in a forest crisis. For years, energy experts and foresters have believed that the poor will eat away the forests of the developing world like locusts in order to meet their ever-growing firewood demand. But how much do we really know about the poor and how they meet their needs, about rural ecology, and about how human-nature relationships are changing over time? The latest survey of the National Council of Applied Economic Research based in New Delhi has thrown up numerous doubts about our long-held perceptions about rural firewood consumption and its impact on the country's forest. An assessment by Anil Agarwal.
The twig gatherers of India would ultimately denude the landscape or so the forest bureaucracy believed
Soon after the oil crisis hit the world in 1973, the government of India set up a Fuel Policy Committee to assess the country's energy scenario. The committee noted in its report submitted in 1974, "Nearly one-half of the total energy consumed in the country comes from non-commercial sources such as firewood (including charcoal), cowdung and vegetable waste. The dependence on these fuels is maximum in the domestic sector. This has led to large-scale denudation and destruction of forests."
This belief of Indian foresters and energy experts has been built on a simple premise. On one hand, energy consumption surveys have consistently shown a very high order of firewood consumption and, on the other hand, the forest departments of various states of India have consistently shown very low levels of legal firewood production from Indian forests. Given this data, the obvious question has been: Where is the remaining firewood coming from? In the absence of good surveys, experts have rushed in to argue that the remaining firewood consumption is coming illegally from forests, which is slowly denuding them.
The Fuel Policy Committee noted in 1974: "The recorded fuelwood output (from Indian forests) in 1969-70 is about nine million tonnes (mt). The actual consumption of firewood is, however, reported to be of the order of over 100 mt, the balance of over 90 mt coming from unrecorded logging (from forests) and removal from 'treelands' outside the forest area." The report went on to warn the country that a serious firewood shortage would emerge by 1985 unless a massive programme to plant fast growing trees was not taken up by the government or efforts made to discourage the use of firewood by popularising substitute fuels. State-level studies also painted more or less the same dismal scenario. For instance, a study published in 1977 pointed out that 30 out of 45 districts in Madhya Pradesh - after taking into account the gross forest area and human population - were already suffering from a firewood famine. At that rate of demand, the study argued that forests in all but 16 districts of the state would have disappeared in another 20 years.
In 1990, nearly two decades after the dire predictions of the fpc had been made, I Natarajan, senior energy economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research ( ncaer ) based in New Delhi in a paper published in Margin entitled 'Firewood Balance in the Nineties', concluded, "...the gap between the demand and the supply from authorised sources for firewood is not likely to be bridged. It is likely that the rural poor would continue to encroach upon public land and forest for obtaining fuel for use in their kitchens.... The demand for firewood has exceeded its supply in the past. This has led to large-scale deforestation with associated harmful effects."
Natarajan pointed out in his paper that whereas many earlier studies conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s had shown that towns and cities were witnessing a transition from biomass-based fuels (like firewood and cowdung) to petroleum-based fuels (like kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas) resulting in a drastic decline in urban firewood consumption - from 16.5 million tonnes in 1978-79 to 9.5 million tonnes in 1983-84 - even though the urban population had increased during that period, such a change was not discernible in the villages. Natarajan argued that the switchover had become possible in urban areas, firstly, because most of the biomass-based fuels consumed in urban areas had been purchased, and, secondly, because subsidies provided to kerosene and lpg had made them cheaper than firewood. But in rural areas practically all the biomass-fuel consumed was collected. Not just the poor but also the rural rich met their cooking fuel needs through collection. "Under these circumstances," Natarajan concluded, "bio-fuel would continue to dominate the rural energy scene."
Based on his past surveys, Natarajan went on to estimate the future firewood demand for India for the years 1994-95 and 1999-2000 assuming a gdp growth rate of 6 per cent per annum from 1989-90 onwards. He also assumed that as the country's cattle population had not shown any growth in the recent past, cowdung availability would remain stagnant. Natarajan arrived at a total firewood demand ranging from 146.2 mt to 164.6 mt for 1994-95 and between 183.6 mt to 216.4 mt for 1999-2000 depending on the availability of kerosene in urban areas.
|How the forests were left untouched
Changes in rural household energy consumption between 1978-79 and 1992-93: coal has dropped, firewood logs and kerosene have increased, while other sources have remained about the same
||1978-79 Tonnes of coal replacement (million)
||1998-93 Tonnes of coal replacement (million)
||414 milliom litres
||1103 million litres
Natarajan argued that it is unlikely that firewood plantations can meet the estimated firewood demand. Nor will the biogas plant programme be able to do so. With just over one million biogas plants operating at the time of writing the paper with an average capacity of four cubic metres, the biogas plants could produce only about 5 million tonnes of coal replacement ( mtcr) of cooking energy. (One mtcr means one million tonnes of coal will be needed to replace the use of a different fuel). But as an evaluation conducted by ncaer had shown that the capacity utilisation of biogas plants is only 30-40 per cent, the total availability from biogas plants was unlikely to be more than two mtcr . Though the theoretical potential for family size biogas plants is estimated to be about 15-16 million, it is unlikely that such a massive increase will take place in their numbers in the near future. Efforts to improve energy conservation programmes through the introduction of efficient wood stoves during the 1980s had resulted in the installation of over five million chulhas by the late 1980s. If their numbers increased to 30 million, a potential saving of 15-20 mtcr of firewood was possible. But given the speed with which these programmes are progressing, Natarajan concluded that greater pressure on public lands and forests appeared to be inevitable.
For the first time the Census of India collected data in 1991 on the type of fuel used by different households. The census results also confirmed that of the 151 million households in India in 1991 (39.5 million in urban areas and 111.5 million in rural areas), 92 per cent in rural areas and 39 per cent in urban areas were dependent on bio-fuels.
A parched waterworld
The doomsday predictions of wars being fought over water indicate the world's precarious position with regard to water. Though 70 per cent of the planet is covered by water, only 2.5 per cent of water is freshwater. Of this, nearly 70 per cent is frozen in the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland. The rest is present as soil moisture and in deep underground aquifers. As a result, only a minuscule 0.007 per cent of water on the planet is readily available for human consumption.
If the world's total river flow is divided by the world's population in 1995, the average is 7,300 cubic metres of water per person per year. This is a drop of 37 per cent since 1970. It must be noted that water distribution in the world is very uneven. While the Amazon carries 16 per cent of the global run off, the arid and semi-arid zones of the world that constitute 40 per cent of the land mass receive only two per cent of the global run off.
With a projected increase of 50 per cent in population in the next 50 years and the expected increase in demand as a result of economic growth and changes in lifestyles, the future does not look very bright, unless there is proper planning and management of water. Agriculture, industry and basic human needs, such as drinking and sanitation, make up for the most important uses of freshwater. Of late, the ecosystem is also being viewed as a user of water. And in all probability, the most important user of water.
"The severity of the recent floods in Europe and in North America indicate that run off water has been denied access to the natural absorbing or sponging areas such as wetlands and marshes," said Janet Abramovitz of the Worldwatch Institute, Washington, dc . "By ignoring nature as a rightful shareholder in water resources, present development trends can lead to worsening of the situation, like the proposed irrigation plans in the Mekong valley, which will directly affect over 50 million people, besides the natural system," she adds.
According to Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World , a 1997 report prepared by the World Meteorological Organisation ( wmo ) on behalf of a host of un agencies: "Water needed to be left in rivers to maintain healthy ecosystems." This reflects the acknowledgement of the ecosystem, hitherto taken for granted, as an equal partner in the use of water. If one goes by the above-mentioned projections whereby all the usable water would be consumed by humanity in the coming 50 years, the ecosystem would be starved of substantial replenishment.
Global withdrawals of water have grown by a factor of over six between 1900 and 1995 -- more than double the rate of population growth. This is attributed to increasing water requirement for agriculture, industrialisation as well as greater human usage in urban centres. According to the wmo report, about 460 million people -- more than 8 per cent of the world's population -- live in countries that can be considered to be highly water stressed. It adds that another quarter of the world's population lives in countries where the consumption of freshwater is so high that they are likely to move into situations of serious water stress.
Agriculture takes about 70 per cent of the water withdrawals, often rising to 90 per sent in dry tropics. Water withdrawals for irrigation has increased by over 60 per cent since 1960, which has coincided with the green revolution. High-yielding crop varieties need a lot of water. While this has led to an increase in the world's agricultural produce to a stste of surplus, it has also increased production costs, essentially due to high costs of inputs. It is estimated that despite the high agricultural production, around 840 million people do not have access to sufficient food. Yet water withdrawals are so high that water bodies, such as lakes and rivers, have shrunk in size. A direct impact of this has been on the levels of groundwater.
Increasing usage of groundwater has pushed the "water table" lower, making its extraction more expensive than before. This can have serious effects on the flow of rivers, especially during dry periods, which is so vital for the aquatic ecosystem. It can also lead to land subsidence. Along the coasts, increasing groundwater withdrawals have led to the ingress of saline water into groundwater. Pollution is another major factor that is reducing water quality and thereby the availability of clean water. The amounts and types of wastes discharged have outstripped nature's ability to break down pollutants into less harmful elements. In the case of the river Yamuna in India, over-extraction of freshwater has denied the river of the minimum flow it requires to actually "cleanse" itself.
Human health is directly linked with the quality of water, as the health of the ecosystem is linked with the quality and quantity of water. About 20 per cent of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water, while 50 per cent lacks access to adequate sanitation. Most of these people are in developing countries, where governments lack resources to make necessary investments in water supplies and sanitation.
At any given time, it is estimated that half the people in the developing world suffer from water- or food-associated diseases, or from diseases that find their source in water (malaria, for instance). Chemical contaminants and heavy metals in water also result in illnesses such as cancer, nervous system disorders, and birth defects. While the Minamata disaster in Japan has been by far the most extreme case for humankind, similar defects have been noted among birds and other creatures in the wild in North America. However, global concern for freshwater was first expressed two decades ago.
Water in foreign policy
The gravity of the problem of freshwater scarcity on a global scale was recognised as far back as 1977, when the un Water Conference took place at Mar del Plata, Argentina. The action plan drawn up at Mar del Plata is considered by many as "an excellent road map", much of which is valid two decades down the road. The Mar del Plata conference succeeded in putting water firmly on the international political agenda, making governments aware of the urgency of the water crisis facing humankind, so that they were forced to take immediate and concrete actions. It changed the perceptions of water as an unlimited resource, and encou-raged the concept of water as an economic good reflecting the real economic cost of water.
In May 1997, the Convention on Non-navigable Uses of International Water Courses was signed after "years of rambling along", as a un official put it.
A framework agreement, it has been drawn up because there is no such convention to assist nations at times of disagreement over a watercourse. It takes into account surface water as well as groundwater. This was drafted in 1977 by the International Law Commission and adopted by the un General Assembly 20 years later. As of date, seven countries have signed the convention, and two have ratified it.
Water was listed in Agenda 21 at the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, recommending that all countries should develop water policies and continually review these according to changing circumstances. The 19th Special Session of the un General Assembly ( ungass ) at New York in June 1997 called for highest priority to be given to freshwater problems facing many regions, especially in the developing world. It also said that the sixth session of the csd would focus on water.
A flurry of activities preceded csd-6. In order to prepare for the session, an expert group on strategic approaches to freshwater management met in Harare from January 27 to 30, 1998. It adopted an ecosystem-based water management approach. The group pointed out that as the ecosystem itself was a user of water (for example, wetlands need water for their survival), it was necessary to promote an ecosystem-based approach in integrated water resources planning. In India, for example, river waters have been exploited to a point that there is no water in these rivers during the dry season.
In the first week of March 1998, Germany organised a meeting at Bonn to develop its intervention for csd-6. This multi-ministerial meeting was organised to harmonise positions of different ministries of the German government: the ministries of environment, foreign affairs, and development cooperation. The meeting had political overtones, observers had noted. Vying for a seat in the un Security Council, Germany was keen to improve its profile in foreign policy by showing initiative in a vital issue such as river basin management, which is marked by international conflicts in many cases.
In March 1998, the French Commission on Sustainable Development held the Paris Conference in preparation of csd-6. The conference highlighted the economic costs of freshwater. One of its conclusions was that a price signal needed to be sent to the consumers so that they could modify their behaviour. The conference also took into account consumer participation in management of their water.
Meanwhile, Global Water Partnership ( gwp ), a network of donor agencies and water professionals, has been created by the World Bank ( wb ), the United Nations Development Programme ( undp ) and the Swedish International Development Agency ( sida ) to formulate new perspectives in water management. Johan Holmberg, the network's executive secretary, had pointed out that the gwp met "almost once every week", which reflects the importance of water issues in today's context.
With such a history of increasing focus on freshwater problems, the agenda at csd -6 was quite clear. However, as prepared as the North was for csd-6, the same could not be said about the representatives of the South.
The question today, therefore, is: Is the rosy picture presented by the ncaer survey of 1992-93 equally applicable to these areas? The 1991 census also shows that states with large tracts of hills and mountains like the Northeastern states and those with dry regions like Rajasthan are still heavily dependent on firewood. Whereas states with large plains are less dependent on firewood. Why have the dire predictions about severe deforestation not come true? There can be several reasons for this. One would be the government effort to promote the plantation of trees by farmers on their farms. Another would be the invasion of exotic species - an unexpected boon.
Farmers' own trees
One major factor for the transition from non-firewood biomass fuels to firewood and from inferior firewood to more superior firewood appears to be the success of the farm forestry programmes initiated in the 1980s by the various forest departments under the social forestry programme. Farmers had largely planted trees on their farms to earn a high income by selling the wood as construction poles or as pulpwood to paper mills. Eucalyptus was their choice species. Between 1980 and 1988, some 18 billion trees were estimated to have been planted of which 10 billion were planted on farmlands. Of these ten billion, some seven billion were eucalyptus trees planted forest expert N C Saxena estimated that they would have given about 25 million tonnes of wood annually compared to the 10 mt that is provided legally as firewood by all the country's forests.
But in large parts of India this programme suffered a serious setback when the government of India reduced import duties on import of pulp and timber in order to reduce pressure on Indian forests in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, the forest departments continued to supply wood to paper mills from forest lands. As a result, farmers found that the construction pole market, being small, quickly got saturated while the pulpwood market slipped away from them. Numerous farmers pulled out their young saplings, others who were considering going into farm forestry refrained from doing so and those who had full-grown trees sold a lot of their wood as firewood. With the urban fuelwood also shrinking because of the transition to petroleum-based fuels, it is possible that a lot of the wood that was generated through farm forestry was consumed by the farmers themselves as firewood.
|The wood and the
Proportion of stem wood and branches in different plantation
||Percentage in total biomass
||Total dry biomas (tonnes per hectare)
wood and bark
|Source: A K
N Reddy 1987, On the loss and degradation of tropical forest, Department of Management
Studies,Bamgalore, quoted in N C Saxena 1997, The Woodfule Scenario and Policy Issues in
India, FAO, Bangkok
An indirect evidence of the increased supply of firewood to urban markets in the late 1980s is provided by the fact fuelwood prices began to become steady in the 1985-90 period whereas they had risen rapidly in the period between 1973-85 - a near doubling in real terms. Whereas the annual rate of growth in prices for foodgrains between 1972 and 1986 was only 7 per cent, it was nearly 13 per cent for firewood. In the five year period from 1982-83 to 1987-88, while wholesale prices rose by 41 per cent, timber prices increased by 148 per cent. By contrast, in the succeeding five year period from 1987-88 to 1992-93 wholesale prices rose by 56 per cent but timber prices increased by only 30 per cent. In other words, timber prices did not even keep pace with inflation in the latter period.
In 1986, a study of 41 towns found that the price of fuelwood was more than 60 paise per kg in cities with more than one million inhabitants and more than 90 paise per kg in cities with more than five million inhabitants. With the number of people living in slums and squatter settlements increasing rapidly, there was a ready market for firewood in urban areas.
And in the absence of subsidies, the cost of a unit of useful energy delivered by firewood as compared to kerosene doubled by 1987 whereas it was the same in 1960 and 1977. (Useful energy is calculated taking into account the efficiency of the device in which the fuel is being used. While wood stoves have an efficiency of only 7-10 per cent kerosene stoves have an efficiency of 30-40 per cent.) But a later study found that in some of the major towns of India fuelwood prices remained almost constant during the period 1985-90.
1992-93 survey could have easily captured the developments relating to farm forestry as they mostly relate to the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it is difficult to say what is the current and future contribution of farm forestry to rural firewood supply because government efforts to promote farm forestry have declined and there is no survey available of areas in India where farm forestry is still being practised or where it is beginning to take roots.
The second factor that appears to have contributed to increased firewood supply is the increased acreage under exotic species which can be heavily lopped - a development which has little to do with government programmes. In several hill areas of the country, an exotic species called Lantana camara
, and across large tracts of drylands, another exotic species called Prosopis juliflora,
have spread rapidly over the last few decades. Both these species are nonbrowsable and can therefore withstand the heavy grazing pressure in the country and spread rapidly on degraded lands. P juliflora
today can found in drylands all the way from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu. P juliflora
, known as mesquite and commonly found in South America ranging up to southwestern us
, was first introduced into India in 1877 to check the spread of desert sands. Seeds were brought into India from the Kew Gardens in London. An attempt was made to grow it in Sholapur district of Maharashtra in 1879 but the effort reportedly failed. The first large-scale plantations were attempted in Gujarat and Punjab in 1894. In the 1950s, the Gujarat forest department took up a scheme to plant 1200 ha of P juliflora
every year at the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch to prevent the desert from spreading. Today it has spread far into the vast expanse of the Rann of Kutch, a large grassland, creating P juliflora
forests and affecting the ecology.
It today occurs widely even on all wastelands of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Ramanathapuram, where substantial saline patches occur, it is even used to reclaim fallow land. Farmers allow it to grow on farmlands for four years, then take an annual crop for two years, and allow P juliflora
to invade the land again. It is also used to make charcoal. It is estimated that 15,000 tonnes of charcoal are transported annually from Ramanathapuram to Chennai. A field study in five villages of the semi-arid district of Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh found that 86 per cent of households met more than 75 per cent of their cooking needs from P juliflora
alone . Prosopis juliflora
is much better than eucalyptus in providing firewood because it can grow easily on degraded lands, it provides 32.2 dry tonnes of biomass per hectare (t/ha) as compared to 17.4 t/ha from eucalyptus, and 70 per cent of its total biomass is branches and twigs as compared to 19 per cent in the case of eucalyptus. Forestry expert Saxena argues that P juliflora
appears to have solved the fuelwood crisis "on its own".
Thus, eucalyptus-based farm forestry which has largely taken place in relatively well-endowed agricultural plains, and an exotic like P juliflora
which has invaded degraded private and public lands in the dry regions of the country, appear to have supplemented each other in easing the firewood crisis as shown by the 1992-93 ncaer
But as P juliflora
has largely invaded public lands and has been grown along roadsides, especially in the dry regions of the country, it is unlikely that it could have contributed much to the increased supply of firewood logs, especially from people's own farmlands. While farm forestry could have played such a role, it is unlikely that it had a nationwide role as the success of farm forestry was restricted to a few regions of the country - almost all the districts of western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab; select districts of south Gujarat like Kheda and Mehsana; Kolar, Bangalore and Tumkur districts of Karnataka; and, Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts of West Bengal.
|Firewood usage in
States by percentage of rural households using firewood
of rural households using firewood
|90-100 per cent
Nagaland, Kerala,Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalya, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal
Pradesh, Timal Nadu, Karnataka and Mizoram
|80-90 per cent
Rajasthan and Sikkim
|70-80 per cent
Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa
|60-70 per cent
|50-60 per cent
|40-50 per cent
and West Bengal
Census of India 1991
Is there, therefore, any other factor that has contributed to the increased supply of firewood logs, especially from farmers' on farms, other than the government-sponsored, eucalyptus-based farm forestry programmes? And what about those regions which have not been invaded by P juliflora
or have seen the success of farm forestry - the hill and mountain regions of India, for instance, ranging from the northeastern part of India to the western Himalayan states, various districts covered by the Eastern and Western Ghats, and the plateau regions of India like the Chottanagpur plateau districts of Bihar and the Deccan plateau of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh? In many of these regions and states, the 1991 census data shows that a large number of urban households also continue to use firewood as a source of cooking energy. It is quite possible that urban and rural firewood consumption is still exerting a pressure on trees in forests and public lands, which may, therefore, demand an appropriate government programme to prevent the growing ecological crisis?
Industry and freshwater. "The challenge is to create the market conditions whereby sustainability will form the basis of competitiveness," Bausuano added.
"Voluntary commitment cannot be a substitute to legislation," said Bjorn Stigson, president, WBCSD. "It can only complement an on-going process. In developing countries, voluntary effort will have to come from the big industries, and the legislation that is in place will have to look after the small and medium scale industry," Stigson pointed out.
Whatever they may have to say on record, it was evident at CSD-6 that industry saw "voluntary commitment" as an opportunity to have their say in a big way. And they did. They pushed for freer markets, stable and predictable trade rules, realistic environmental targets, a common international framework, and even a situation whereby voluntary commitment could "overcome expensive command and control systems".
Desai said that industry could engage in consultations with all stakeholders from the initial stages of policy formulations. "Governments could consider such dialogues at the national level," he pointed out.
Paul Clements-Hunt of the International Chambers of Commerce, which represents a larger number of industries and countries than does the WBCSD, said that joint understanding of voluntary codes was a prerequisite for constructive dialogue.
While NGOs from the North were open to this development, their counterparts from the South had doubts. It was pointed out that industry in the South had a poor record of adherence to environmental standards. Would the governments of the South be able to enforce environ-mental norms if industry has a greater role in something as essential as managing resources of freshwater? Almost a contradiction. But these two issues dominated CSD-6 from day one. In the words of Nitin Desai, under secretary general, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the biggest challenge of CSD-6 was to see how industry could make a greater contribution to sustainable development and how the international community could formulate an integrated strategy in water management. What emerged in the end, was the fact that industry is indeed being viewed as an equal partner in sustainable development.
The issue that caught the imagination of CSD-6 as far as the industry segment was concerned was voluntary commitment. The North saw this as a development worth getting excited about. On the surface, industry was circumspect. Dom Bausuano of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) said that market-driven industry would respond to public perceptions.
Managing freshwater resources
Do industry and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) make strange bedfellows? Not anymore, apparently. In what could be a trend-setting partnership, UNEP and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) have come out with a report titled "Industry, Freshwater and Sustainable Development". Dubbed the "wake up call to business and to the other sectors of society", the report documents how many companies manage freshwater resources more sustainably.
"(The report) is meant to serve as an example of cooperation between an inter-governmental organisation and a business group in disseminating information on freshwater," notes Klaus Tofper, executive director, UNEP. "UNEP has a primary interest in guaranteeing adequate freshwater to protect the natural environment and aquatic life as well as to meet human needs. The primary focus of business is on ensuring access to process water for its operations," he added.
Highlighting the state of the world's freshwater, the report notes that a number of regions in the word were suffering from freshwater shortages. While assuring that the world was not running out of freshwater, the report adds that it was not distributed equally, and not where needed. "Industry could be at risk when freshwater shortages occur. Water for industry is often given relatively low priority. Water (would then) become a limiting factor for sustainable development and future industrialisation in water-scarce regions," the report says.
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