BULAWAYO, Apr 3 (IPS) - The plumes of smoke rising above the dense working class suburbs of Bulawayo are a sign of the environmental impact of Zimbabwe's electricity crisis.
Zimbabwe's urban population is turning to firewood for fuel, with damaging effects on the country's forest cover.
In January, the Hwange Thermal Power Station broke down. Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) spokeperson Fullard Gwasira announced that the country's power supply had dropped to just 750 megawatts, barely a third of Zimbabwe's peak demand for 2,200 MW.
Faced with frequent power cuts, millions of people across the country have increasingly turned to wood as an alternative energy source, to cook and heat their homes during the winter.
Deforestation is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe. The country lost more than 20 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005, an average loss of 312,900 hectares, according to statistics compiled by environment website Mongabay from a variety of sources including the the United Nation's Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Still more alarming, the rate of forest loss accelerated by 16 percent between 2000 and 2005 as political and economic crisis gripped the country.
The controversial land reform exercise that began in 2000, which saw veterans of the 1970s war of liberation occupy many large farms owned by Zimbabwe's white minority, has contributed to reduced agricultural yields and environmental degradation.
Two or three times a week, James Chulu hires a donkey-drawn cart to tour the small farming plots in areas on the outskirts of Bulawayo to buy wood for sale in the city. Conservationists say the new occupiers of land in areas like Nyamandlovu and Plumtree are felling trees without replanting anything for the next generation.
"They have been selling us the firewood for sometime now," Chulu said. "But after ZESA began cutting electricity for hours (at a time) last year, the demand has gone up and we have virtually stripped the woodlands."
Thabilise Gumpo, of conservation group Environment Africa, is just one of many concerned observers.
"We will be left with no forests or trees and one has to imagine the deserts we are creating in the process all because of the electricity outages," she told IPS. "But it is difficult (to raise objections) when this is the only energy source the people have. The environment has been the worst casualty here."
So severely depleted is the supply of wood, that residents have begun to sacrifice precious fruit trees. Judith Mwale, a widow and grandmother whose face and posture betray 60 years of toil, can't afford the wood sold by vendors like Chulu, one U.S. dollar for a bundle of three small pieces.
"I had no choice but ask some young men in the neighbourhood to chop down the trees. How else would I prepare my meals and feed these children?" Mwale asked.
"What can we do?" Chulu says, shrugging his shoulders. He and Mwale both exemplify a common local attitude that the environment will take care of itself.
But environment activist Gumpo fears that future generations will "inherit the wind."
"It is a difficult gospel to preach," she says of conservation, at a time when a broke government is both failing to maintain its own generating facilities or to settle huge electricity bills for power imported from neighbouring South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.