Abitter-sweet feeling engulfs residents of the high-density suburb of Epworth on the outskirts of Harare when it rains.
Incessant showers have poured over the past few weeks in the country and the capital city dwellers, left to depend on open wells and boreholes as taps ran dry towards the end of 2019, have particularly kept their fingers crossed for more.
At midday, the sky is overcast with promising clouds and most at this compound — that houses small families of three or four people per room on average — are in a hurry to ensure everything is in place before it rains.
Zvanyadza Nyambo crouches with his son, backs to the wall, eyes transfixed on lunch — a metal cup of maheu, a non-alcoholic home-brewed drink made of thin, slightly fermented maize-meal porridge — heating on the ashes of a dying fire.
A few metres away from the waning cinders, that have apparently been cooking meals to cover the entire day, and at the middle of the compound sits Nyambo’s neighbour Freddie Zhuwaukinyu.
“There is no electricity or water here, but perhaps if we had power we would have placed pumps into our wells and get water from a tap instead of walking for kilometres to fetch the liquid,” Zhuwaukinyu (36) interjects.
Since moving here to the Makomo/Komboni Yatsva part of the suburb in 2014, the father of two has continuously hoped that they will get connected to the national electricity grid one day.
This has not been so and with the country facing its worst economic downturn in over a decade, prospects of connection get bleaker each day leading many to resort to firewood and charcoal.
“We cook in bulk and have to eat cold food all the time because we cannot risk finishing our firewood by heating food,” says Christabel Kadiramombe, mother to a two-year-old. In times of unrelenting rains, she says, her family can sleep on empty tummies.
“When it’s raining we wait until it stops because there are no separate kitchen huts for cooking (so) if it doesn’t stop we sleep on empty stomachs, it has happened many times.”
Research points at more than 330 000 hectares of trees being lost annually as a result of the energy crisis leaving the country’s forest cover at a dreadful 45%.
But, with prices for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), an environmentally cleaner option, beyond the reach of many, use of wood fuel is serving as a catalyst to the disappearance of trees.
In fact, wood has become the main source of cooking and heating on cold days for the majority of the ordinary citizens.
For 56-year-old Haruperi Mapira, the negative environmental impacts of using charcoal hardly influence her choice of what energy to use in her household.
There is “no way out,” says the grandmother of four after powerlines attached to her house in Budiriro 1 were reduced to mere decorations since October last year when the high-density neighbourhood’s electricity transformer was vandalised.
“It has been months now and because of the absence of power I now have to wake up as early as 4am so that I can heat the charcoal I use to cook for my grandchildren,” said Mapira.
According to her, life in the city has become economically unsustainable for her family of eight as they have to part with US$7 for a sack of charcoal to use every fortnight.
“We cannot plan or stock perishables in bulk because we do not have fridges. Also we sometimes eat food that is almost stale, which is not good for the health of the young ones,” she lamented.
With Zesa, the country’s power utility company, taking a snail’s pace to replace worn-out or stolen infrastructure, it is not known when Mapira and her neighbours’ predicament will end.
With winter on its way, more trees are set to disappear as capitalists make a killing off the crisis despite the southern African country’s pledge to increase its forestry cover by 10% by 2030.
Adding to the problem, most households connected to the national grid are already enduring power blackouts of up to 18 hours daily while tariffs have constantly been reviewed upwards in the past two years leaving many to rely on trees as the main source of energy.
Scientific findings ascertain that when trees are cut down and burned or allowed to rot, their stored carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide and this is how deforestation and forest degradation contribute to global warming.
The local crisis comes at a time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) has warned that quick action is needed to limit the global temperature increase to 1,5°C by 2050, beyond which the dangers from climate change will increase significantly.
Last year, in a study, researchers from Zurich University in Switzerland ascribed planting huge amounts of trees across the globe as an effective way to fight climate change.
“There is room for an extra 0,9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon… The numbers were really overwhelming and way beyond what we expected. Actually, the restoration of trees can be our main weapon to fight climate change,” said lead author of the research Jean-François Bastin while presenting their findings in Berlin.
With the future of the planet dependent on the actions of all human beings towards reducing carbon emission, local citizens and government institutions should be exploring clean alternatives of solving the energy crisis.
Zimbabwe has over 300 days of sun annually, for example, which makes solar energy an attractive way out of the crunch.
However, Zhuwaukinyu bemoaned the compromised quality of the solar panels on the local market as well as the high prices of storage batteries.
“You see I have a solar panel, but it is those cheap ones and so is the second-hand battery I use for my stereo and lights,” he said.
“Perhaps Zesa should lead in this power issue and set up solar stations where they can power the entire nation with this free power from the sun.”
With Kariba hydropower station down as a result of successive droughts leading to high dependence on the high carbon-emitting Hwange Thermal Power Station, Zhuwaukinyu’s suggestion among other sustainable solutions could be a befitting response to the nation’s power conundrum.