Nairobi — An old woman, her back breaking with a load of firewood, staggers along a forest path. Every month she has to walk further afield to find wood for cooking and heating, for supplies are dwindling.
The scene is repeated millions of times throughout African and other third-world countries.
She and the family have to have the wood. There is nothing else.
But every log she gathers contributes to the degradation of the environment, contributing to the spread of deserts and arid areas.
Acute shortages of firewood affect some 90 million people in developing countries, according to United Nations energy experts.
The answer, say these same experts, is to produce more efficient fuelwood stoves acceptable to villagers, and to establish fuelwood plantations near villages.
Most stoves in developing countries use little more than 10 percent of the heat produced from wood-burning.
A project in the Kenyan village of Ruiru-Githanguri is sponsored by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan's foundation in Switzerland and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). The project is experimenting with fuelwood plantations and making prototypes of woodstoves with the eventual goal of mass production throughout the third world.
The tests start this month with the cooperation of some 18,000 villagers. The Aga Khan is a former UN high commissioner for refugees. His foundation is engaged in the search for alternative sources of energy for the third world.
UNEP has already set up an experimental rural energy center in Sri Lanka to generate power from the sun, wind, and biogas. In one center in the Phillipines, windmills deliver water at low cost to villagers. A rural energy center has been set up in Senegal, and another in Indonesia.
Setting up fuelwood plantations to relieve the terrible pressure on the forests, and the promotion of more fuel-efficient wood stoves are still, UNEP points out, in the early stages, but they hope the eventual benefits will be enormous.