Home grown energy

19 Dec 2016

 A once-wooded hillside in the Forishsky district of the Djizzakh region

Wood is a key resource around the world and in Uzbekistan. It is a source of fuel that if effectively maintained, can be carbon neutral and have a positive impact on the environment.

Currently, though, far more naturally-growing wood is cut and burnt, than is replaced. In the past decade 1.2 million squares of forest, almost three times the size of Uzbekistan, has been cleared. Various estimates put the global annual deforestation rate at around 6 million hectares a year.

Uzbekistan is no stranger to this phenomenon – in a country once densely packed with forest, the remaining barren deserts, steppes and hillsides have very telling names like ‘Pstalitau’ – “Mountain Covered with Pistachios” – that betray a forest’s disappearance.

So, it is important to understand why cutting down a tree has a multitude of negative impacts. It is true that a barren valley is less attractive than a forested one. But beyond this superficial aesthetic reason, trees are important because they form part of an ecosystem – remove them and the structure will collapse with negative consequences.

First and foremost, it must be understood that trees are a carbon-sink. They hold carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere, and they produce oxygen. They are the ‘earth’s lungs’ as the cliché goes.

They are also fundamentally important for the long-term well-being of human communities, who may be compelled to cut down the forests for the short-term benefits of relatively easy-to-access firewood for personal use or selling.

Cutting down trees eliminates destroys the environment for several commercially-useful products. Think of mushrooms, herbs, fruit, nuts, berries, that can supplement diets and find their way into market baskets. Removing trees and plants can have the short-term impact of limiting water absorption, thus boosting the risk of dangerous mudflows. The possible disappearance of pollinating insects is a slower, but perhaps even more frightening consequence.

The impasse here is that people need firewood to heat their homes and cook their food – in rural areas there can often be no alternative (apart from perhaps improved natural gas access, which is another tried-and-tested solution – something to be further expanded on).

Growing trees for firewood is so far not common, but this is not to say that families don’t grow them for other purposes. Indeed one of the longest-standing cultural traditions in Uzbekistan is the planting of rows of poplar trees, that marks the birth of children – when children are old enough to establish their own households, those trees are tall enough to make the literal foundations of their new homes.

There is a simple leap here – each family can plant an extra 5 trees, each year, for firewood.

GEF SGP presents this as an effective, carbon-neutral way of keeping homes warm in the winter. Logic dictates that any carbon the trees extract from the atmosphere will be returned when the wood is burnt, so nothing gained, nothing lost. 

There is also great business potential in growing trees for fuel. This is a practice with endless global precedents, and GEF SGP has already supported the establishment a 60 hectare ‘Saxual’ desert shrub plantation on the Dzharkurgan district in the Surkhandarya region, launched in 2009. It is conservatively estimated that the initial investment into the business (around 11,845,000 soum or 3,690 USD) will be multiplied 5.5 times over ten years (to an estimated 64,160,992 soum or 19,987 USD). In a less cautious reality, the profits may be much higher.

So, changing how people view the problem of firewood will need a few different angles of approach – the value of growing the plants needs to be confirmed. As such, GEF SGP are preparing a guidebook of how to grow firewood in households – this will be discussed more in future blogs. There is also the possibility of setting up community awareness programmes.

With these combined efforts, there is a real potential for home-grown energy.

Visit the GEF SGP’s dedicated homepage here.