Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas II


In Laos, 'Gobar Gas' is called 'Gaz Sivulphap.'  The program is not sparking as well in Laos as elsewhere, perhaps because they still have many trees.  They don’t have to walk far or pay for wood.

Aussie Andrew Williamson from the Dutch SNV, and Bounthavy Sengtakoun, his Laotian compatriot, examine a biogas lamp in Laos.  This house has electricity but biogas is cheaper.  A biogas lamp, similar to an LPG camping lantern, can cost anywhere from US$3 to US$15 depending on quality.

Cambodia: light in many homes is provided only by battery.  A small business that uses a generator charges the village batteries.  If you are in a jam in a village like this, and need your sat phone or cell phone charged, find one of these places and they’ll wire you up while you have tea.  In Iraq, some people charge cell phones on motorcycles.

In addition to the health advantages of biogas for women and children, the rest of nature also benefits.  Birds and other creatures do better when trees remain standing. In Nepal a single biogas plant can save about 2,500 kilograms of wood per year.  Trees anchor topsoil and prevent erosion.  In some places, the wood is simply gone.

The people of Bhatti—a village whose business is making moonshine—said they had heard about Gobar Gas but never wanted it.  Wood for cooking and making raksi (rice whiskey) was plentiful.  But they burned through all the wood—destroying the local economy.  LP, kerosene and other fuels are too expensive to use in making moonshine. So the entire village of nearly a hundred people began travelling—up to three days to and fro—to buy wood from other places.  Even the men had to spend their time scratching for wood—a situation too humiliating to stand.  Gobar Gas started flowing in Bhatti in November 2009.

Lizard Hole

Dung piles in Karbasha Qalat, Afghanistan

Ghor Province, Afghanistan is similar to dry parts of Nepal.  In Ghor there is a village called Karbasha Qalat (Lizard Hole) populated by a cow, sheep, horses, dozens of people, and thousands of lizards.

Villagers dry the dung in the sun and collect it into huge stacks, as people do in India, and Nepal, and across many places.  Karbasha Qalat (KQ) is like a dry Galapagos with all those lizards basking in the sun atop rocks and dung.  Unlike the islands, KQ is not at sea level, but over 8,000 feet.

In some places Afghans tell stories about today’s barren mountains having been covered by forests.  If there ever were trees around KQ, they are gone. The wild plants that can survive here must be bitter to man and beast.  There is no local wood.  When the manure is burned, it chokes those nearby, and then it is gone.  If KQ had a biogas generator, tons of manure would make gas while yielding slurry, to fertilize the now barren land.  And there wouldn’t be human and animal feces everywhere—a serious hygiene improvement.  The villagers in KQ had enough manure piled up to fuel a rocket with Gobar Gas.

Lizards atop dung cakes in Karbasha Qalat.

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), 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 Oruzgan.

An outside stove in KQ.  Many Afghans cook indoors.

The bio-slurry 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. In Vietnam it has been adopted for sanitation.  The biogas and the great sanitation benefits, including reduction of waste-borne diseases, are byproducts in one place and impetus in another.  In Karbasha Qalat, with a few greenhouses using the bio-slurry, the standard of life could dramatically improve.  There must be thousands of “Karbasha Qalats” in Afghanistan.

SNV: The Dutch Connection

The more one learns about biogas, the more one sees the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) humming in the background.  SNV started working on biogas in Nepal in 1989, further adapting the Chinese technology (the system is used across China), and developing an effective market-based program model.  The Dutch could not be accused of looking for short-term solutions or following the crowd.  Fifteen years in, SNV decided their domestic biogas program model was ready to replicate elsewhere in Asia.  They started the program in Vietnam in 2003, and the Asia Biogas Program targeting 1.1 million beneficiaries in Vietnam (second phase), Bangladesh, Cambodia and Lao PDR in 2005.

Wim van Nes, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, is in charge of supporting SNV’s biogas programs in fourteen countries, seven in Asia and seven in Africa.  And so I had to find Wim van Nes, but that comes later.

Kitchens in Laos are better ventilated than many in Nepal or Afghanistan.


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