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UNHCR and partners debate how to meet fuel needs in North Kivu


UNHCR and partners debate how to meet fuel needs in North Kivu

UNHCR and its partners debate the best way to meet the fuel needs of displaced people in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most argue for firewood.
17 April 2008
Weighing up the energy options. Piles of firewood at an IDP site in North Kivu.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 17 (UNHCR) - Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is famed for its rich biodiversity, but years of conflict and human displacement have severely depleted its wildlife and led to massive deforestation in lowland regions.

UNESCO, which inscribed Virunga on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1994, estimates the fuel wood requirements of almost 1 million refugees camping inside the park at 600 metric tons per day. Highland forests, home to the endangered mountain gorillas, have largely been spared to date.

DRC's warring rivals formally agreed to peace in 2003, but fresh fighting in volatile North Kivu province over the past 16 months has led to a fresh influx of some 50,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) into the foothills of the park's focal point, the volcanic Mount Nyiragonga.

This has put renewed pressure on the forest resources as IDPs cut wood for fire and construction; it has also opened debate among the UN refugee agency and its partners on the best ways to meet the energy needs of the displaced while at the same time protecting the environment.

Currently, IDPs get their firewood from Virunga and much of it is provided by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on behalf of the UN refugee agency. But despite this supply, some female IDPs still search the land for wood and this makes them vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence from armed men.

"The firewood we receive is not enough to satisfy my cooking needs," explained one displaced woman, Bazagira, while adding that the wood she receives is hard to set alight and gives off too much smoke.

Some agencies say that to protect the environment - and avoid the dangers of woodcutting - alternative sources of energy should be provided, including gas cookers, but WWF disputes that Virunga's forest coverage is under greater threat and argues that firewood is still the best and most economical solution.

"The [mainly eucalyptus] trees that we cut down were planted for this very purpose - to supply to communities in need," said Jean-Marie Mbonigapa. WWF's deputy project manager in North Kivu.

Others support WWF, saying that viable alternative sources of energy - such as liquid fuel and gas - are costly and technically unfeasible in eastern DRC, which lacks roads and other infrastructure.

Pappy Bokolo, a consultant on the environment for UNHCR in North Kivu, said the cost of transporting gas and installing a distribution network serving IDP camps would be prohibitive. It might also cause resentment in local communities.

For the time being, the use of firewood seems the most viable method for meeting the energy needs of displaced people. But UNHCR continues to look at ways to maximize its use and avoid waste and environmental degradation.

"We have to target wood distribution to vulnerable families and to introduce the use of charcoal stoves for those who can brave the forest," said Bokolo, adding that aid agencies should also educate IDPs about safe cooking practices and proper dumping of waste.

UNHCR also promotes the use of materials other than wood, including plastic sheeting, in the construction of shelters.

By David Nthengwe in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo