Energy Challenges in Rural Armenia


Energy Challenges in Rural Armenia

During the recent decades the use of fuelwood and dung for heating and cooking purposes has been a common practice in the rural households of Armenia. Unsustainable production and inefficient use of these fuels is linked to different areas including household economics, health, energy, and forests. Excessive use of fuelwood has negative consequences for human well-being and forests. There is a need to increase the efficiency of households’ heating as well as to explore and promote the alternatives. This will help to conserve the limited forest resources of Armenia for future generations and improve the livelihoods in rural Armenia.

Text : IBiS    Photo : GIZ

Natural gas makes the highest proportion in the total energy supply profile of Armenia. Gas is imported from Russia (80-85%) and Iran (15-20%). The other energy sources are nuclear power, followed by oil, hydropower and biomass. Thus, the Armenian energy sector highly depends on imports. With an officially reported share of only 4-6%, biomass (including fuelwood) seems to have minor contribution to the Armenia’s overall energy mix. And yet, it is worth to have a closer look. 

Although nearly all communities have access to natural gas, it is rarely used in rural households for heating during the winter. Over the past fifteen years, prices for gas and electricity have increased substantially, posing a problem especially for low-income households. As a result, the demand for fuelwood as an attractive alternative heating source has increased dramatically. The demand for fuelwood exceeds by far the supply of fuelwood that can be ensured by the growth of forests. It leads to forest degradation, which poses serious threats to the forest ecosystems including soil erosion, disturbance of hydrological balance, and other. 

Local residents report that it is expensive to buy fuelwood from the forest enterprise. In forest adjacent communities, people are entitled to collect up to 8 cubic meters of dead wood per household by themselves free of charge. The designated areas are remote and not easily accessible by vehicle. Nevertheless, fuelwood remains the most affordable and attractive fuel source in many villages.

Recent surveys show that heating costs constitute up to 20% of household incomes, depending on the heating option. Still, heating is perceived as an inefficient, insufficient, and uncomfortable process, especially in rural households. Often houses are heated partially, and lots of heat is being lost because of different reasons. In addition, preparation of fuelwood and dung for heating is time and work consuming. 

In this respect, the practice of using moist fuelwood is one of the important issues to be addressed. It is not only inefficient, but also causes indoor air pollution. In many cases, people also burn plastic, rubber and other waste in the stoves, producing toxic emissions. Women and children are particularly vulnerable, since they spend comparatively more time at home close to the stove and can suffer from respiratory problems and intoxication. 

Apart from fuelwood, animal dung is used as energy source, especially in non-forested regions. It is available for free, dried and piled up close to most rural households that own livestock. Burning dung means that it can no longer be used as valuable organic fertilizer. This can lead to decreased soil fertility, with a negative impact on pastures and agricultural productivity. 

To address the multiple challenges related to rural energy, several fields of action have been identified, on the supply and the demand side. First of all, raising awareness and knowledge on energy-related topics among the population is a precondition for further actions. Measures to ensure a sufficient level of forest protection and control are required to prevent unauthorized fuelwood supply. Promotion of sustainable forest management principles and practices is another important aspect to be considered. Still, without the provision of feasible alternatives to rural communities the issue of excessive use of fuelwood can hardly be addressed. Thereby, options to increase energy efficiency at household level, such as the use of dry fuelwood, improved stoves and thermal insulation measures need to be promoted. The production of pellets and briquettes from woody biomass or other agricultural residues as alternative fuel materials should be supported and extended to other areas. Despite its growth over the past few years, the market for renewable energy appliances (e.g., solar water heaters, solar panels for electricity generation) still has a huge potential for expansion. 

A smart energy policy is needed, considering affordable financing and incentives for energy end-users, public-private partnerships, etc. To achieve the desired changes, it is necessary to invest in people, in their education and talent. 

Looking at these diverse options, there is another important aspect to be considered: women play an important role in energy decisions at household level and can be powerful catalysts of change. For example, the regulation of air temperature in the house, determining the consumed amount of fuelwood and other household tasks are mostly under women’s control. Educating and enabling women as change makers can have great influence on the energy consumption habits of their children, who will shape the future generation.

Within its focus on sustainable management of natural resources, the GIZ supported ECOserve programme, that started recently, provides opportunities to tackle some of the challenges related to rural energy. 

A good example for practical measures are the two schools in Nahapetavan (Aragatsotn region) and Saralanj (Shirak region) – winners of ECOserve’s “Green Idea Contest.” Until now, these schools have been using diesel to heat the classrooms during the winter. This is not only dangerous in terms of fire risk, but it also produces toxic emissions that impact the health of children and teachers. The selected schools receive support for the establishment of solar panels, which will produce electricity to heat the elementary class rooms and cafeteria. 

In general, coordinated actions at different levels are needed to address the current energy challenges in rural Armenia. This will not only reduce the pressure on already limited forest resources but will also improve the livelihoods of the rural population.

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