NIAMEY, Oct 20 (IPS) - The competition between energy and environmental needs in Niger has taken centre stage of late, with authorities seeking to promote the use of coal in a bid to halt deforestation in the North African country.
"Wood is the primary fuel source in Niger, and is used for 95 percent of all energy needs. (However) it clearly plays an important role in sustaining the environment," Oumarou Hammadou, permanent secretary of Niger’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, said recently.
The Sahel region, which stretches through Niger across the width of the continent, marks the transition between the Sahara desert and the equatorial area. For several years, concerns have been expressed about the Sahara’s encroachment onto the Sahal – a trend partially ascribed to overgrazing and deforestation.
According to Issaka Mallam Garba, director of energy and mines for the Niamey region, the country consumes about two billion kilograms of firewood annually, of which more than 100 million kilograms are used by large institutions. Niamey is the capital of Niger.
Says Hammadou, "If we don’t take steps now, we will be short three million tons (three billion kilograms) of firewood in 2010, or 2.5 times the present sustainable supply, and our forests will disappear."
As part of their campaign to get Nigeriens to switch to coal, authorities are preaching the benefits of this energy source to a wide variety of groups and organisations.
State agencies, civil and professional organisations and entrepreneurs are all being lobbied to use coal. Authorities also want households to become more efficient in their consumption of energy resources.
Key to the government’s campaign is increased production by the Nigerien Coal Company (Société nigérienne de charbon, SONICHAR) which extracts coal from mines in the central Agadez region.
"Besides the things we’ve already done, there’s the relaunching (of SONICHAR’s) 3,000 metric-ton-a-year (three million kilograms) production unit at Anou-Araren, the distribution of more than 300 tons (300,000 kilograms) of coal in the metropolitan Niamey area, and the production of 3,800 coal-burning stoves designed for collective and individual use in households," Hammadou told IPS.
Special points of sale for hospitals and other large institutions are envisaged to ensure that they are provided with enough coal to function smoothly. In the short term, relatively few households will be affected by the move from wood to coal – although officials hope that the overall use of wood will be substantially reduced.
"These information campaigns by the government are intended to get us to replace 25 percent of our firewood with coal, but only two percent of urban households will be affected," Mallam Garba told IPS.
Niger would require about 600 million kilograms of coal a year were all households to start using this energy source, he adds.
"SONICHAR has the capacity to produce 300,000 tons (300 million kilograms) of raw coal a year," Mohamed Haidara, a senior official in the company, said in an interview IPS.
"Until now it has transformed part of this amount into electric power which feeds the plants in the Agadez region and its surroundings, which need only 160,000 to 170,000 tons (160 million to 170 million kilograms) a year," he said, adding that the use of surplus coal for domestic energy uses would allow SONICHAR to "substantially reduce its losses."
Plans are underway to increase SONICHAR’s production to 33 million kilograms by the end of the year.
Those households which do start using coal may find it more cost effective than wood.
"Coal is more economical than wood. With a 40-kilo bag, I can cook for practically three weeks, while with firewood I would spend at least 5,000 CFA francs (over nine dollars) each week," Fati Abdou, a restaurateur in Niamey, told IPS.
"The only thing about coal which puts people off is the fact that it’s hard to light if you don’t know how. But once you’ve got it lit, it stays lit for the entire day," she added.
According to organisers of the wood-to-coal campaign, a 40-kilogram bag of coal costs about 7.5 dollars – and a coal stove just under four dollars (government is subsidizing the cost of these stoves).
A 40-kilogram bag of coal is said to be sufficient to cover the energy needs of a family of 10 for a month or more, whereas about 150 kilograms of wood would be required for such a household over a similar period.
Officials have arranged for blacksmiths to be trained in the production of coal stoves – and have held cooking classes to show families how to use them. The campaign has even received an endorsement from the National Association of Wood Users.
"Recourse to coal as a source of domestic energy is a healthy initiative, in the sense that it will allow us to save our forests from altogether disappearing," says Elhadj Dodo Mahaman Abdou, president of the association.
He adds that his association "is prepared to help government in this laudable enterprise by being responsible for investing in and selling (coal) in markets.”