ON 7th June 2024, I had the pleasure of meeting Sitwala Wamunyima, our esteemed Director of Forestry, at the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment. My appearance was less than impeccable, with wrinkled clothes that prompted an immediate apology from me. “This load shedding and electricity is a problem,” I explained. “You can imagine power goes at 4 and comes around 8, then goes at 17 only to return around midnight. Ironing is thus a challenge in these times.”

To my surprise, Sitwala chuckled and said, “Bwana Chaliafya, there is no problem of load shedding or electricity in Zambia. The problem is the trees. Look, we have all the installations for electricity; the turbines at the Kariba are all fine, the poles and transmission lines are all intact. The real challenge is that perhaps we do not have enough trees to sort out our water problem. What have we done or are we doing to our trees at the source of our water and along the river banks?”

This response caught me off guard, leading to a deeper conversation about the vital role trees play in hydroelectric power generation in Zambia.

The Vital Role of Trees in Hydroelectric Power Generation

Trees are fundamental to the hydrological cycle, which in turn is crucial for hydroelectric power generation. Trees contribute to the water cycle by absorbing water through their roots and releasing it into the atmosphere through a process called transpiration. This released moisture forms clouds, which eventually precipitate as rain, replenishing rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.

In Zambia, the Kariba Dam and other hydroelectric facilities depend heavily on consistent water levels to operate efficiently. During drought periods, like the one we’re currently experiencing, the lack of sufficient rainfall results in lower water levels, reducing the capacity to generate electricity. The degradation of forests, especially around water sources and riverbanks, exacerbates this problem. Without trees to maintain the moisture levels and support the water cycle, the region faces diminished rainfall, leading directly to the kind of power shortages we’re experiencing now.

The Drought and Its Impact on Power Supply

Currently, Zambia is grappling with a severe drought, which is manifesting as extensive load shedding. Most Zambians, understandably frustrated by frequent power cuts, do not see the root cause as land and forest degradation affecting the climate. Instead, they feel the immediate impact of electricity blackouts.

However, as Sitwala pointed out, our electricity infrastructure is largely intact. The turbines at Kariba are in good condition, and the transmission lines are well-maintained. The core issue lies in the inadequate water supply due to insufficient rainfall, which stems from deforestation and poor land management. Unless we address the “tree problem,” load shedding will continue to plague our nation.

The Charcoal Conundrum

Our discussion naturally flowed into the topic of charcoal. I suggested that we should eliminate charcoal production altogether, arguing that the concept of sustainable charcoal is practically untenable. Sitwala, however, held a different view, saying, “Bwana Chaliafya, I beg to differ, but let’s continue this discussion at a better time.”

Looking Forward

As we prepared to meet the Permanent Secretary, I reflected on the insights shared by Sitwala. It was heartening to note the dedication of our colleagues, who start their day at the office around 7 AM, well before the official 8 AM start time.

This conversation has illuminated the intricate link between our environment and power generation. It is not just an issue of electricity; it’s a broader ecological challenge. We need to rethink our approach to land and forest management if we hope to secure a stable power supply for the future. Trees, it seems, are not just part of the landscape—they are a critical component of our nation’s energy infrastructure.

The load shedding will persist as long as we overlook the importance of our forests. The solution lies not in temporary fixes but in sustainable environmental stewardship that recognizes the pivotal role of trees in maintaining our water supply and, consequently, our electricity generation capacity.

As we sat in the lobby at the permanent secretaries office, I overheard our director giving instructions to my colleague over a budget line to do with graduates employment, I stood up and left with joy. We have people that are thinking about the plight of foresters after all- the PROFEEL objective was thus energized in me and I overjoyed to know that some foresters will soon see employment and internship. This should translate into the Forestry Institute of Zambia membership becoming stronger.

About the author
Chaliafya Katungula does forestry advocacy for Communities Communication Transparency Accountability and Research-F(A+C+T+A+R)