Thursday, January 26, 2012

Scavenging for Charcoal Fuel in the Rubbish of Manila (National Geographic)

Published in National Geographic on January 25th, 2012. This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.


Thousands of urban slum dwellers including these in the Ulingan community in the Philippines capital of Manila (map) live amid filth and swirls of toxic smoke as they eke out a living making charcoal from wood scavenged from nearby garbage dumps and construction sites.

The conditions of slums near Manila Bay are unhealthy enough—the Ulingans live next to a rubbish dump. But the rudimentary process of making charcoal in open pits exposes the squatters to harmful emissions such as as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and soot, as well as chemicals when burning treated wood. The result is a myriad of respiratory illnesses and heart disease.

The plight of the poor who scavenge Manila's trash heaps underscores why United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Energy, said Ban, is "the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and preserving the environment." More than 2.7 billion people worldwide cook on wood, charcoal, dung, coal, or agricultural residues on simple traditional stoves or open fires, and 1.4 billion have no access to electricity at all. The vast majority of the world's energy-poor people live in Asia and the Pacific islands.

(Related: "The Solvable Problem of Energy Poverty")

Although energy is essential for development, it is not sufficient without programs that help the poor to increase their incomes, concluded a report released last week by the UN Development Program.

The vicious energy poverty cycle is clearly visible in Manila, where many children are held out of school by their families to make charcoal. Amid hazardous conditions, children toil; this girl is searching for nails in charcoal pits to resell for a few pesos. Researchers have identified more than 35 diseases in garbage-scavenging areas, including cholera, dysentery, malaria, skin disorders, tuberculosis, and typhoid.

Small-scale charcoal production in the developing world is usually illegal and unregulated. It occurs not only in urban slums like these in the Philippines, but in rural areas across the globe. For example, charcoal production and the resulting deforestation in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered a leading threat to mountain gorillas.

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