Source: Michael Yon Online
“Gobar” is the Nepali word for cow dung. The “Gas” refers to biogas derived from the natural decay of dung, other waste products, and any biomass. In Nepal, villagers use buffalo, cow, human, and other waste products for biogas production. Pig and chicken dung are used in some places, as are raw kitchen wastes, including rotted vegetation.
Gobar is typically mixed with a roughly equal amount of water, and gravity-fed through a pipe into an airtight underground “digester,” where naturally occurring bacteria feast on the mixture. This anaerobic process produces small but precious amounts of gas. That gas can be fed directly into a heat source, such as a cooking stove, and used to fuel it.
The biogas is 50-70% methane by volume, similar to natural gas, and a convenient source of clean energy. The gas is easily collected and stored for lighting, cooking and other household uses. After bacteria digest the dung, the by-product is a rich organic fertilizer, sometimes called slurry, or bioslurry. That fertilizer is more effective than raw dung, with important benefits for hands-on farmers. For instance, it doesn’t smell bad, and almost all the pathogens and weed seeds have been destroyed. There is no downside. No waste. No poisonous residues or batteries. Few moving parts. Gobar Gas is an astonishingly elegant tap into “the circle of life” which environmentalists, economists, development people and humanitarians can all admire.
According to Saroj Rai, the Executive Director of the Biogas Sector Partnership (BSP-Nepal) in Kathmandu, which oversees the Biogas Support Programme (BSP), the idea came to Nepal in 1955 when Bertrand R. Saubolle constructed a plant, and demonstrated the technology. In 1975/76 the Nepalese government installed 199 individual plants, but biogas truly developed when the Dutch launched a large program in 1992.
Today, an average-sized home installation might cost US $530—big money in Nepal—but subsidy mechanisms and microfinance schemes have led to the installation of approximately 204,000 units in the last two decades. The BSP program estimates that, with subsidies, another 500,000 units should be built and installed.
It’s not just Nepal. Other poor Asian countries have climbed aboard the biogas train. Biogas has become so popular in Vietnam that many farmers have it installed on their own, without subsidy. Subsidies vary greatly from up to 50% in countries like Laos, to 13.5% in Vietnam. The size of the subsidy required to persuade farmers to install the equipment is a reflection of both the relative wealth of farmers, and the priority they place on having a reliable substitute for wood, charcoal, other fuels—and the value of the fertilizer. (More details on subsidies in the unabridged version of this dispatch.)
About thirty million of Gobar Gas units are currently believed to be operating in India and China.
“Forget about the environmental benefits,” said Mr. Rai. “People don’t see the value in saving the trees. Unless they are very enlightened they are reluctant to try biogas. It’s about social marketing. These types of products are not easy. But once you install a Gobar Gas plant, the woman typically says, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this twenty years ago!’ Once they experience the benefits they are overwhelmed and social marketing is very easy.”
“Some women spend more than twelve hours per day, six days per week collecting firewood,” he said, “and children who could be in school are out collecting wood.” Those are extremes, to be sure, but as a rule, women and children spend hours a day collecting fuel. Given a choice, Nepalese mothers prefer their children go to school rather than haul wood. During walks in the mountains, it’s common to see kids of maybe six or seven out collecting wood in little baskets.
In addition to the health advantages of biogas for women and children, the rest of nature also benefits. Birds, and other creatures dependent on trees, do better when trees remain standing. In Nepal a single household biogas plant can save about 2,500 kilograms of wood per year.
Ten kilos of dung yields roughly an hour of stove burning time, and one of those skinny cows produces about 12 kilos per day. KQ had a great herd of sheep—probably a couple hundred—kept in pens when not out feeding. Villagers scrape sheep dung from the pens, which they mixed with cow (I saw only one cow), mule and horse manure for cooking. A small stream runs through the village. Afghans will use greenhouses if taught; I’ve seen them in Helmand and Uruzgan, for instance. Slurry is used widely in greenhouses in Nepal.
The bioslurry from the digester is so effective for growing crops that in some countries, according to Mr. Rai, biogas is not an energy program but an agricultural initiative, while in Vietnam it has been adopted for sanitation and economic growth. The biogas and the great sanitation benefits are byproducts in one place and impetus in another. In Karbasha Qalat, with a few greenhouses using the bioslurry, the standard of life could dramatically improve.
Incredible Return on Investment
For a typical Nepalese family, installing a biogas facility, even with subsidies, is expensive. But people feel that the investment pays for itself in a short time. Some women reported that Gobar Gas installations completely returned the investment within a year to 18 months. SNV figures are more conservative, but even conservative SNV figures show a complete return on investment after about three years. SNV figures were in all cases more conservative than what users told me in Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
These rapid returns measure the financial cost against real financial gain, from new activities that are more likely to generate income, which take the place of the daily search for fuel to survive. For instance, in Nepal, Subarna Budhathoki said her Gobar Gas unit cost 35,000 Nepalese rupees after the subsidy, but she made 50,000 rupees the first year by selling vegetables. Subarna said, with a smile that hardly ended during the entire lengthy conversation, that she would have earned 200,000 rupees on tomatoes that year, but the tomatoes were victims of a hailstorm. Despite the hail setback, she cleared a real profit of 15,000 rupees in the first year.
Long Term Gains
It’s important to consider the less easily monetized yet real benefits from using Gobar Gas. Saving 2,500 kilograms of trees per family each year has long-term economic value, and it keeps the birds and squirrels happy. Improved health from better sanitation and the absence of constant wood smoke in the home has clear economic benefits, as does the ability to send children, freed from the labor of searching for fuel, to school. These items, and many others, don’t fit on a balance sheet, but they improve conditions for real, long-term economic and social development. Health and education are the foundations of human capital needed to sustain a wealthier, more advanced society.