We all probably have a bag or two of charcoal in our garage. Maybe from a tailgate party or a BBQ in the backyard. Charcoal is composed of the ashes from burning wood, coal, or petroleum. Because charcoal burns at a very high temperature, it was the traditional fuel blacksmiths used. Just a little history lesson.

But the real problem with this energy source is how it can deplete living forests. To be a sustainable fuel, charcoal must be made from dead wood, such as fallen trees and branches collected from the forest floor or wood scraps leftover from lumbering and manufacturing. In Africa there is an underground business of making and selling charcoal from virgin wood. Back in June, the NYTimes wrote an article, ”Africa’s Economy Is Cooking. The Trees are Paying,” explaining how most of the charcoal produced in Africa is made using illegally harvested trees. In the many growing cities in the continent, charcoal has become the main fuel for cooking and heating, causing unprecedented demand.

A more recent article, “Poverty, Drought and Felled Trees Imperial Malawi Water Supply,” reports how the local water board in Lilongwe, Malawi, is paying to have the Dzalanyama Forest protected by the military. The area’s water supply is being threatened not only from the drought but also from deforestation caused by the illegal charcoal industry, leaving the land unable to absorb what little rain falls in the forest.

If Africa’s forests are not properly managed, charcoal will become impossible to make. Denuded forests also cause erosion, flooding, and landslides and can’t transpire water back into the atmosphere. The charcoal burners in Lilongwe are creating a climate that is drier and has less water in a community that is already suffering drought conditions. How can these people survive without adequate water? How can we educate them about the natural water cycle that is being damaged when all of the trees are being cut down in order to support their families? So next time you light up your grill, think about how easy we have it in the US and how humans really do negatively affect the environment because of their need to survive.