At least twice a week Khiev Thim leaves his base in Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district at 2:30 am—his trailer bearing about 1 ton of charcoal—and arrives in Phnom Penh at 6:00 am to sell his product.
During the course of about two days in the capital he sells charcoal he bought from producers in Kompong Speu to restaurants, market vendors and individual households in the capital.
“My work gives me a headache, coughing, flu and my skin becomes very itchy,” he said while delving his blackened hands into the flaky lumps of charcoal piled up in his rickety trailer. “I don’t know what else to do to feed my five children.”
Mr Thim’s arduous existence is part of what analysts say is a $25 million annual market for charcoal in Phnom Penh that is expected to more than double in size during the next five years based on current trends.
According to a 2008 study conducted by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, the UN Development Program and environmental NGO Geres, national demand for charcoal was estimated at 321,000 tons in 2007 and is expected to rise to 801,000 tons by 2015.
“Although there is a massive shift towards modern energy sources…the demand for firewood, charcoal, kerosene and batteries will remain high over the next decades,” the report said.
The projected rise in demand for charcoal has raised concerns among environmentalists for a number of reasons. Charcoal production entails the removal of vast quantities of woodland—often in naturally growing forests—as well as high levels of carbon emissions such as black carbon, or soot, which scientists say is partly responsible for global warming.
Wood burners for cooking, which are used extensively in Asia and Africa, produce the bulk of black carbon. Soot particles, which scientists say can travel long distances, warm the air and melt ice by absorbing the sun’s heat.
David Beritault, an energy expert at Geres, said that much of the charcoal made in Cambodia has not been sufficiently burned to complete its transformation from wood, a phenomenon that leads to higher levels of black carbon in the atmosphere. Charcoal, if produced correctly, burns almost smokeless and is less polluting than wood, although it does emit greenhouse gases during its production.
Geres is currently involved in a so-called “green charcoal” project that aims at making charcoal with more energy efficient wood.
“If we can control the process we can produce the same amount of charcoal but with less wood,” said Mr Beritault.
However, higher production costs means that green charcoal will be more expensive than the wood taken from naturally forested areas, meaning domestic demand for it, especially in rural areas, could be greatly reduced.
Indeed, as Cambodia’s population increases in size, experts say that energy demand is forecast to increase by between seven and 16 percent per annum.
“In the countryside most people use wood or charcoal” as their main energy source, said Rogier van Mansvelt, an independent rural energy consultant based in Cambodia.
But he says that only 25 percent of the charcoal consumed comes from sustainable sources, where replanting is encouraged on designated land that does not jeopardize natural forests. The remaining 75 percent derives from forests, some of which can be found inside national parks, he said.
“There is selective cutting, then there is land clearing. There is all this wood available,” said Mr Mansvelt. “That is why [we] should have an integrated approach into a region.”
Environmentalists say that to help reduce the demand for charcoal some very simple and affordable options are available.
Water filters, which cost about $7.50, could be used instead of having to boil water to make it potable. Moreover, Biodigesters, which provide a cheap source of fuel by converting organic waste into biogas, is another option that would also improve health conditions inside households that cook with wood and charcoal.
Exposure to smoke from the burning of traditional fuel wood and poorly produced charcoal increases the risk of disease, most notably lower respiratory infection.
But with 27 percent of residents in Phnom Penh using charcoal as there main energy source, according to the Ministry of Industry and urban demand for charcoal predicted to nearly triple over the next two decades, the amount of work still needed to provide alternative solutions to Cambodia’s poorest is still ample.
Mr Thim, the charcoal merchant, said that demand was still fierce in the capital.
After one morning in Phnom Penh he had sold about 600 kg of charcoal to a mixture of individual households and small businesses.
“We sell it everywhere in the city, except along the main roads,” he said.