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Published 15 June 2010
Brunei, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
Among the more interesting coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan are the legendary Nepalese Gurkhas. Trained and fielded by the British, as they have been since colonial days, Gurkhas are a fascinating admixture: today many are British soldiers used to traveling the world. Many of them grew up barefoot and poor in remote and primitive mountain villages in the high Himalayas: places that closely resemble parts of Afghanistan, geographically and culturally. They understand impoverished life in a harsh environment personally, though Nepal has enjoyed some material progress in the last few decades. That combination of background and experience makes Gurkhas helpful at generating useful approaches to Afghan development. They know what is possible, and they’ve seen experiments succeed or fail.
A Gurkha veteran named Lalit whom I met, deep in the jungles of Borneo, at a British Army man-tracking school, came with good ideas. Lalit began a conversation by announcing that many of Afghanistan's energy, land restoration and fuel needs could be solved if the Afghans would immediately adopt "Gobar Gas" production. This mysterious substance could improve the lives of Afghans as it had that of the Nepalese, he said, as, with great enthusiasm, he began to explain.
I returned to Afghanistan, this time to areas of Ghor, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. No Afghan along the way had heard of Gobar Gas. I flew to Nepal to talk with Gobar Gas experts and users.
Physically, Nepal and Afghanistan share striking similarities. Both contain extreme mountains and have few roads. The mountains are harder still to live in, because of the lack of electricity, transportation, communications technology and just about anything else associated with modern societies. Both countries have, unfortunately, been saddled with corrupt governments, universally mistrusted. They each have about 30 million people—eighty percent of whom are subsistence farmers, living in small villages. The median age in both places is under 20, suggesting future crises. Half of the Nepalese are literate; perhaps a third of Afghan men can read, now, in the opening decades of the 21st century.
Desires, complaints and problems in both places often run parallel. Sizable populations are isolated for months each year by snow, rain and landslides—or just lack of bridges. Government influence in both countries mostly ends with paved roads. (Though Nepal actually has a government of sorts, and not surprisingly, far more roads, if still few.) In the hinterlands life remains primitive. Government edicts and ideas issued from Kabul or Kathmandu are unheard or ignored—the words might as well come from Timbuktu or the Moon.
A remarkable difference in Nepal is that most ethnic and religious groups coexist reasonably well, and despite their recent civil war the Nepalese are less prone to allowing rule by local warlords, general violence, and especially violence directed toward outsiders. Even during peak wartimes I had no difficulties walking hundreds of miles through contested areas in Nepal. Though Nepal is one of the poorest, least developed countries on Earth, and despite rampant corruption and recent war, progress is perceptible.
Nepal is arguably a half-century ahead of Afghanistan in governance, education, press, and tourism; the steady stream of intrepid travelers who want to visit Kathmandu and trek the Himalayas is the country’s good fortune. Even during wartime fighters leave tourists alone. Old-timers in Nepal say that in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, few boys and almost no girls outside the ruling elite went to school. Today education is ever increasing in Nepal—though not universal. Democracy was first tasted in Nepal in 1950, but did not truly take hold until 1990. The trend lines are slow but good. (Some educated Nepalese might take issue with the previous sentence.)
Though Nepal is still poor and underdeveloped, if Afghanistan reached Nepal’s current level in a few decades, that would rightly be considered a success. And so Nepal has become a sort of looking-glass for Afghanistan. It’s a good place to search for insight and ideas that might be applied in Afghanistan. The Gurkha idea for Gobar Gas was a pearl from Nepal.
“Gobar” is the Nepali word for cow dung. The “Gas” refers to biogas derived from the natural decay of dung and other waste products and 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 power it.
The biogas that is produced is 50-70% methane by volume, similar to natural gas, and a convenient source of clean energy. The biogas is easily collected and stored for lighting, cooking and other household uses. After the bacteria have finished digesting the dung, the byproduct is a rich organic fertilizer (sometimes called slurry). That fertilizer is more effective than raw dung, with two important benefits for hands-on farmers: 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. No moving parts. Gobar Gas is an astonishingly elegant tap into “the circle of life” that environmentalists, economists, development people and humanitarians should all appreciate.
The Home Plant