The livelihoods of vulnerable families, including the poor and internally displaced, in the self-declared independent republic of Somaliland have been hard hit by steep rises in the price of charcoal, the main fuel for cooking in the region.
A 25kg sack of charcoal cost 90,000 Somaliland shillings (US$13.84) in October - up from 60,000 shillings ($9.23) in September. A similar sack was selling at 18,000 shillings ($2.76) in 2007.
"We used to buy two full sacks of charcoal per month but due to the high price we buy one jaqaf [tin] daily," Asha Ahmed, a mother of five, told IRIN. A jaqaf is equivalent to one-tenth of a 25kg sack.
In the Ahmed household, charcoal accounts for about 64 percent of daily expenditure, leaving little money for food.
"We spend 9,000 Somaliland shillings [$1.38] on charcoal out of our 14,000 shillings [$2.15] daily expenditure. The 5,000 shillings [76 US cents] left is not enough to pay for the family's three meals per day," explained Ahmed.
According to research in 2007 by the Academy for Peace and Development (APD), an estimated 70,000 households in Hargeisa were using 105,000 sacks of charcoal per month at a cost of 1.89 billion shillings ($300,000).
“During our research in 2007, we found one charcoal field in Odweyne [capital of Daad-Madheedh Region] where more than 3,000 trees were being burned down for charcoal daily,” Omar Aden Yusuf, a researcher with APD, told IRIN.
Sanaag and Badhan regions in eastern Somaliland were the most affected. “The worst environmental degradation is in Sanaag and Badhan because charcoal is trucked from there to Bossaso [on the coast], from where it is exported to the Gulf States,” added Yusuf.
The number of households in Hargeisa has more than doubled since 2007, according to government estimates, with the average urban household using two bags of charcoal per month at a cost of about $27.69.
Why the shortage?
The low charcoal supplies have been attributed to environmental degradation and government efforts to stem the trade.
"Two reasons caused the increase in the price of charcoal: one is government fines on charcoal traders, and [two is] the lack of trees to burn for charcoal," explained Ahmed Abdillahi, an environmental expert.
Every person who cuts trees for charcoal is fined 2,500 shillings (38 US cents) per sack, according to Somaliland’s 1998 environmental law. With more green trees being cut down, the government intends to stiffen the penalties.
Low profits are also pushing charcoal traders out of business, affecting supplies. "We can't proceed with the charcoal business any more because if you sell each sack that you bought at 70,000 shillings ($10.76) for 80,000 shillings ($12.30), tomorrow it will be 88,000 shillings ($13.56)," said Yusuf Mohamed Ali, a charcoal trader in Hargeisa.
Longer-term strategies aimed at diversifying the number of affordable energy sources in Somaliland are yet to take off. In 2011, the government was planning to invest in coal, solar and gas energy sources.
"The government is working to find alternatives to charcoal because it has already made a negative impact on the Somaliland environment and our entire forests have now become deserts," said Shukri H. Ismail Bondare, the Somaliland minister for environment and pastoralists’ development, adding: “The government of Somaliland has made LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] and kerosene stoves tax free to solve the problem.”
The government plans to set up credit facilities to give more people access to kerosene stoves, said Bondare, noting that kerosene may also be zero-rated.
The uptake of newer energy sources has been slow.
"I bought a kerosene stove for my family because it is cheaper than charcoal. For example, my family now uses one litre of fuel per day, which is 7,000 shillings ($1.07)," said Aw Isse Ahmed, a father of seven, in Hargeisa.
But charcoal is still preferred. "The people of Somaliland will never stop using charcoal stoves for cooking unless life forces them to search for alternatives because they are accustomed to using charcoal their whole life," said Ali Sh, a student at the University of Hargeisa.
Lack of exposure is a problem too. "We don't know how to use kerosene and LPG, but we only know how to use charcoal," said Amina Omar, an elderly mother living in Hargeisa's largest centre for displaced people, State House.
Somaliland authorities are urging the international community to assist.
"We are calling on the international community to help us to get alternative cooking energy, such as promoting kerosene, LPG as well as solar energy," said Minister Bondare.