Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas

2462 Comments

(Abridged version1)

Smart Moms raise smart kids

Brunei, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
Published: 08 June 2010

Michael Yon

A Gurkha Idea

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, they are elite soldiers used to traveling the world. But 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. Forefathers of some of today’s Ghurkas fought in the Afghan region during earlier wars. Gurkhas understand impoverished life in a harsh environment, though Nepal has enjoyed material progress in recent decades that is mostly unrealized in Afghanistan. Unlike forces from Europe or America, who often regard Afghanistan as an outpost of 13th Century life, Gurkhas can provide a link between primitive Afghan standards of development, and the possibilities for progress, with insights and connections that might elude most Westerners.

The insights of a Gurkha veteran named Lalit, whom I met in the jungles of Borneo, at a British Army man-tracking school, were particularly valuable. One day in the jungle Lalit began a conversation by announcing that many of Afghanistan's household needs could be solved if Afghans would adopt "Gobar Gas" production. Gobar Gas could improve the lives of Afghans as it had that of the Nepalese, he said, as he began to explain with great enthusiasm.

During Lalit’s time in Afghanistan, he found nobody who had heard of Gobar Gas—even though Gobar Gas has been a quiet engine of ground-level economic transformation in Nepal and numerous other poor Asian nations.

After the man-tracking course ended I returned to Afghanistan, this time to the desert-like areas of Ghor, Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where most people have no electricity and often spend hours daily scrounging for bits of wood or whatever other fuel they can find on the deforested plains. Lalit was right about two things: No Afghan I met had heard of the Gobar Gas – by any name. Nor had most American development people on the ground. Second, Gobar Gas looked like a serious solution in some areas to the lack of available fuel to meet daily needs. Given its track record and its perfect applicability to Afghanistan's state of development, this was a match made in heaven. I flew back to Nepal to talk with Gobar Gas experts and users. (A full explanation follows shortly.)

Himalayan Range in Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Physically, Nepal and Afghanistan share similarities. Both contain great mountains and are difficult to navigate due to lack of roads, while existing roads are frequently impassable. The mountains and weather can be brutal. This is compounded by lack of electricity, transportation, communications technology and just about anything else associated with modern societies. Both countries have been saddled with weak and corrupt governments, universally mistrusted. They each have about 30 million people—80% 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.

The 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 where the paved roads end. (Though Nepal actually has a government of sorts, and not surprisingly, far more roads.) In the hinterlands, life remains primitive, and in some cases, quite literally, prehistoric, except that outsiders note their existence. Government edicts and ideas issued from Kabul or Kathmandu are unheard or ignored—the words might as well come from Timbuktu or the Moon.

Main road just outside Chaghcharan, capital city of Ghor Province, Afghanistan.  There was not a single meter of paved road in the entire province.

A remarkable difference in Nepal is that most ethnic and religious groups coexist reasonably well, and despite their recent civil war the Nepalese seem considerably less prone to warlordism, 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. While Nepalese fought each other, all sides (other than occasional criminals) protected travelers. Travelers who want to visit Kathmandu and trek the Himalayas are the country’s good fortune. 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 certainly in tourism. Nepalese old-timers say that in the 1950s and 60s, for instance, few boys, and almost no girls outside the ruling elite, went to school. There has been steady progress in the numbers of citizens educated in Nepal. A visitor will see school children in many districts, even deep in the mountains, wearing uniforms and often walking 5-10 miles to school, as our grandparents once did in America. Democracy was first tasted in Nepal in the 50s, but did not truly take hold until 1990s. The democracy is struggling and fragile, but trend lines are good. (Educated Nepalese could mount valid arguments contradicting my statement.)

Though Nepal remains poor and underdeveloped by Western standards, if Afghanistan were to reach Nepal’s level in a few decades, some might rightly consider that a great success. And so, for me, 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 in Afghanistan was a pearl from Nepal.

Dung

Dung balls in Afghanistan are pearls from Nepal.

“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.

Diagram of 'Gobar Gas' installation in Laos, where it's called 'Gaz Sivulphap.' In Cambodia 'Gobar Gas' is called 'Chiveak Ausman.'

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.

The Home Plant

Nepalese Gobar Gas: this installation begins at the blue outhouse.  Human waste feeds to the underground 'digester.'

Animal and raw kitchen waste is churned with water.

Both pipes meet underground in the digester.  Normally this place is filled with tons of excrement.  This digester was under construction.  One pipe stems from the mixer, the other from the outhouse.

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Erik · 8 years ago
    I remember seeing Gobar Gas set ups on farms in rural India back in 1983.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AmericanJarhead · 8 years ago
    Michael, this is a very interesting story. Something so simple changes lives is such dramatic ways... Also, I think you have some of your best documentary images in this dispatch. Keep up the good work. -Cris (americanjarhead)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeffrey Blue · 8 years ago
    wonderful report
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    Steve Graves · 8 years ago
    Michael: Great article. I hope I am correct in deducing from the last couple of paragraphs that the Gobar Gas project might be getting a foothold in Afghanistan.

    My son (an engineer as well as an artillery officer) says he sees all kinds of possibilities if some of the villages in the river valleys could install some of these fuel producing systems.
    You know the Marines. . . they'll improvise and adapt if given the OK from the higherups.

    Headed over to the PayPal site to send you a few.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    1typhoon · 8 years ago
    Michael I recollect your briefly mentioning Gobar gas in one of your dispatches from some months ago. It is a brilliant solution to the social, economic, and environmental difficulties faced in rural Afghanistan (and perhaps other areas). Hopefully your dispatch will call more attention to this wonderful source of energy. As always your photographs are outstanding...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Spc. Scott · 8 years ago
    Simple ideas can have such a huge effect. Great article Michael. This idea alone could help so many people in Afghanistan not to mention what it could do for many parts of the "civilized" world.

    Some farms here in upstate New York are putting in methane collection systems. To hear them talk about it, it sounds like some really new idea. Kinda funny really.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hoss · 8 years ago
    Great report. Considering the hundreds of thousands of "experts" and billions of dollars spent on this kind of infrastructure development (w/o significant success), you report something that has common sense and practical value. Perhaps because we continue to look at all problems through Western rose-colored glasses ?

    Some of the high and mighty who allocate money to State, DoD and the NGOs need to read this. Airborne.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hector Cervantes · 8 years ago
    Michael, this is a very interesting and educational piece. You did a terrific job explaining it. Maybe your story will catch some big government eyes and a Gobar Gas program will initiate.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bendaco · 8 years ago
    Michael,
    love this story; thank you for your perseverance!
    Haiti has effectively deforested itself, I wonder if this is something for Haiti?
    I pray God will continue to protect you in your travels.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewat · 8 years ago
    I wonder if the earlier work in this area inspired Bartertown in _Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome_?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    david · 8 years ago
    I seem to remember that this system was also used in the construction of Disney world down in Flordia. Though they acted like it as a big innovation then.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eric H · 8 years ago
    Hi Michael, will you be making the unabridged version of the report available?

    Also, I love this line from the "Jobs" section of the SNV website:

    "Forget about the young volunteers that used to be posted by SNV in the distant past. SNV today solely works with highly specialised and experienced professionals, who are willing to make long-term commitments to this career choice."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 8 years ago
    It seems like Mike has more on the ball when it comes to ecology and environmentalism than most of the idiot talking heads and prevaricating pinhead politicians.
    Keep up the great works Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dak · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    You mention that this is, "...an abridged version of a far more detailed dispatch..."

    Could you post the longer one?

    ~Dak
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Arik · 8 years ago
    Hi Michael

    Is there any talk about using this idea in Afghanistan? Besides contacting my local representatives and politicians who I believe would be interested in this idea, what can we do to kick start it there? This could be huge.

    Thanks

    Arik
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Smith · 8 years ago
    Wow. I'm thinking we ought to attach a hose to the top of the Capitol dome in Washington.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Johanna Stephens · 5 years ago
      The Capitol dome is awash in the biogas! Think of the rich return in bioslurry.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul · 8 years ago
    So, instead of installing sewage systems that get clogged with rocks used to clean, and outhouses that need fuel driven trucks, the PRTs need to get this system going.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ken R · 8 years ago
    Great idea! Even better, there is a large supply of potential fuel on many of the bases. Look at food scraps and other products that could be used in this. Look at the infamous "poo ponds" that are on the various bases and FOBs. Not only could this be used to help the community, but possibly to provided power and resources for the bases as well.

    A central point that could produce this gas for a village or town?

    Maybe set an example?!?

    Great article and pictures!! Keep up the good work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Papa Ray · 8 years ago
    Anyone that has composted much knows that it takes a little know how to get a good compost pile and to keep it "healthy". Or even if if your using a compost bin, the mix of what is put in and how often is very important and that the air supply plays an equally important part.

    The same is true of this technology. The PH of the mix determines the output. Too little manure or too much vegetable material upsets the PH and can/will delay or ruin the process.

    For additional info:

    Gobar Gas Methane Experiments in India (From The Mother Earth News)

    Great job Michael !

    We all need to pray that this can be developed in every country where it is needed.

    Papa Ray
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Papa Ray · 8 years ago
    Well, the link didn't take. Trying again.

    http://www.mothercow.org/oxen/gobar-gas-methane.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    BSJ · 8 years ago
    Really! Where do I send the donation!?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    GL Rai-Zimmdar · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    I am but a Gurkha; poor, marginalized and voiceless. Thank you for speaking something on behalf of us.

    http://www.Celebrate-the-Gurkha.org
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matthew Gonzalez · 8 years ago
    "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. Trees anchor topsoil and prevent erosion. In some places, the wood is simply gone."

    If you take a quick look at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Google Earth, there is literally a line where there are trees on one side, and none on the other. Right now, I am envisioning US troops going house to house and setting these things up. If the Amish can get a few hundred guys together to build a barn in a day, we can round up a company to build a house or village sized gobar gas unit. Taliban monopolies on cell phone tower coverage will have no bearing on the ISAF's Gobar Gas monopoly.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Janet · 8 years ago
    Excellent article. Very well researched, nicely written and very enlightening. Thank you for sharing this knowledge.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jan D · 8 years ago
    Thank you for bringing the WORLD to us !!
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    Brad · 8 years ago
    Now it is clear that your work is world-scale life-changing important. There is no substitute for your war reporting. And it turns out the most important part of that, seems like supporting the families in the way you speak to them with great focus and compassion. And now then you have put forward and facilitated a breakthrough in civilization in a large part of the world, in a simple, straightforward way. Well, don't quit, and BE CAREFUL. When it's all over, I wish you would set up an institute to develop, teach, and train, and assist, every kind of effort like this. And I wish people who are in charge of paying attention, would really pay attention.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Len Austin · 8 years ago
    Michael, we work closely with DTW (Development Technology Workshop) here in Cambodia, and they design and produce the biogas burners for the NGO's to give out. For information on the biogas burners, please check out this web page: http://www.dtw.org.kh/Templates/biogas.html

    Not cutting edge technology, but it fine bit of kit made locally and robust.

    If your ever in Cambodia, check out the GW Explosive Harvesting Program, your always welcomed. Our website is: http://goldenwesthf.org/home.php

    Stay safe,
    Len
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim · 8 years ago
    Michael,
    Excellent article
    !
    I'm a retired USAF SOF operator. Having worked on numerous civil affairs projects, I know you're right on target with the analysis in this article. Your posts are required reading for the joint service special ops ROTC group I'm advising. I know these future warriors and leaders will get the truth from you.

    Since retiring in 1997, I have helped form a sustainable agriculture group in upstate New York. We are VERY interested in implementing the gobar gas home units with our members. Could you please offer some tips on source info for manufacturers, suppliers, even plans from local Asian families.

    We're eagerly looking for more of your stories on the combat troops, the locals and the background info in OEF.
    Blessings!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris Betros · 8 years ago
    http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renewable-Energy/1981-05-01/Sichuans-Home-Scale-Biogas-Digesters.aspx

    Golly, I thought that this technology had given away to something else.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Reggie · 8 years ago
    Seems like the US should put a couple of these in every village. Seems pretty economical rather than handing out cash.

    Can that slurry be used to build fertilizer bombs against our troops?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jim · 8 years ago
    This is not new technology and the Hadji's haven't figured it out after how many years? You're dealing with people who are still living in the 8th century who are too dumb, lazy, or incompetent to figure out much of anything. Don't waste your time.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom · 8 years ago
    ...if my HOA will allow this at my house.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    The setup in that movie was actually pretty stupid, because they made it clear that the pigs were raised for no reason other than to provide dung for the biogas tanks (remember the character "Pig Killer", who got life for killing a pig?). It would be one thing if the pigs were being raised for food and leather and the biogas was just a useful byproduct; but if you're not doing that, why not just put whatever the pigs are being fed straight into the tanks?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jon L · 8 years ago
    Great post and beautiful photographs on a vital topic in modern discussions of energy and development. I was recently in Nepal working on Gober gas (biogas) development, and I would truly love to see the same gains made in Afghanistan. In fact, we have been examining the potential of using the same (low-tech) technology in the Negev desert in Israel to help Bedoins, but we always run up against a central problem: water availablity. In Nepal, buffalo dung must be mixed ~1:1 with fresh water for the appropriate breakdown to take place. Goat dung, the majority of "fuel" available in Afghanistan, would require even more water per unit mass dung. In Nepal, there is plenty of water, but can we say the same about Afghanistan? Note that recent work using animal urine has not supported urine as a viable replacement for water in the reactor. Personally, if the water issue can be worked out, I would love to work on these projects in Afghanistan myself!

    The next big hurdle is temperature. The microbes need temperatures consistently higher than 15 deg C to efficiently break down the raw dung (a yearly average of at least 25 deg is preferrable). In Nepal, biogass is generally feasible up to around 3000m altitude, and at higher latitudes the temperature differential brings this max altitude down. In the winter, gas production drops significantly. How many parts of rural Afghanistan are within the appropriate temperature ranges?

    Also, a minor point: while laboratory results show that methane yields of 70-80% are possible, the majority of working reactors do not reach this efficiency. Research in the Negev shows average methane values closer to 35-50% for goat dung (less efficient than cow dung), which is still good enough for cooking.

    Keep up the excellent work!

    Jon
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon Author · 8 years ago
    Jon,

    Your points are very important. I did a lot of research on those same topics. Some places in Afghanistan are definitely in the right temperature range -- and there is plenty of water. (Some places.) For instance, Helmand, Kandahar, Nangahar and some other areas seem perfect.

    Will go into far more details in the unabridged version of the dispatch.

    Great to read that you are working on Gobar Gas. This is very important and it's just kind of humming along in the background.

    Michael
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brian · 8 years ago
    This would be a great source of compost and energy for rural farming communities in the US and I see a great use for it in the poor, agriculturally based Mexican communities along the US/Mexico border. Ghobar Gas, not just for the 3rd world anymore.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mmckay · 8 years ago
    I helped on a building project 4 yrs ago in Madagascar. The Malagasy people have cut down 97% of the rain forrest for cooking and making brick. The gov't was attempting to convert the populace to propane at that time, but the people are so poor they can't afford it (avg. $250/yr income). This seems like a possibility for them as well.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    O. OC. · 8 years ago
    Hello - just sent you a donation via PP (as "W.W.S.").

    I'm a farmer now based in Ireland; is there any way I can get either the plans ("Diagram of 'Gobar Gas' installation in Laos"), or one of the kits you showed in the photo, or even both? We've put up our own wind turbine that we sourced from China after much research, also will be installing micro-hydro. Have experience with P.V. out in the desert in the US. Also with Pure Plant Oil production on farm. So we like tinkering with stuff and getting our hands dirty - but all the same, I wouldn't mind getting my hands on one of the kits if I could. Would be a bonus too if we could support any group/company that subsidizes/helps fellow farmers elsewhere.

    Thanks for your time and information.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    Jon L:

    I googled *urine biogas*, and the first hit (Bangladesh J. Sci. Ind. Res. 41(1-2), 23-32, 2006) claims that using urine as a substitute for water actually increases biogas yields. I would appreciate your comments on this study.

    O. O'C.:

    Google *biogas plant design*. Somewhere near the top of the list should be the Nepal Biogas Plant Construction Manual.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    Or, even better, just google *Nepal Biogas Plant Construction Manual*.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bruce O. · 8 years ago
    What a great story and research job!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lt. Col. Ron Hasman · 8 years ago
    I can remember Ambrose Keroualle promoting this very idea for Afghanistan and Pakistan at a NATO conference, back in 1998. Most of us thought it was a rather offbeat notion, but I can see now that a very small investment might've led to a vastly different environment in those areas. Strategic development often tends toward military solutions, when much subtler actions are more effective in neutralizing conflicts. This is an excellent example.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ashley Keller · 8 years ago
    Michael, thank you so much for brining gomber gas to light! I am so interested in the possabilities of this alternative-fuel in Afghanistan (as a young army engineer officer ways to help Afghanistan/Iraq captivate me). Your thorough research in this article has inspired me to look into gomber gas iniative programs that bring this to remote areas.

    Thank you so much
  • This commment is unpublished.
    another Michael · 8 years ago
    that gobar gas is used not only in those 'impoverished" areas, but here, at home...what would the corporations built around supplying us with energy do?
    Mabbe we wouldn't even need to war in the 'stans' in order to provide us with the strategic lines to our power sources?

    imagine...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paula · 8 years ago
    Thanks for this link very interesting ..will see how we can adapt for Africa through [note from Webmaster hyperlink removed]
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    I think you'll find that systems like that are in use in America and Europe. I have personally visited a sewage treatment plant that uses biogas from the sludge digesters to reduce it's energy costs. But if you think that they could possibly eliminate or even significantly reduce our need for fossel fuels, you are mistaken. It's the same problem as for automotive biofuels: where do you get the biomass from?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    another Michael · 8 years ago
    If You, for a second think, that I am concerned about the cities or commuting or transportation, well, then You are not seeing what I am seeing. We are rapidly reversing back to the stone-age. Those models are dying a death of a hundred pricks every day. Of course You see them in Europe - we have invented them - on a massive scale, for our population centers. But they(cities), too, are a failed model. Failed, because we have imported parts in them not tolerable to the operation of the whole. Those cities and their inhabitants are not my concern.

    We need to DESTROY our dependency of the big social/governmental functions to survive. Our future lays in the destruction of our "own" governments, who are presently in the business and process of replacing us with more suitable subjects.

    And that - as they say - is that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alaska Paul · 8 years ago
    Great article on the gobar gas phenomenon. Cities have used anaerobic sludge digestion for years, and the methane produced has been utilized for a number of applications, for instance running engines for sewage pumping. However, the gobar gas producers are all pretty small and simple. In temperate or colder climates, the digesters will have to be insulated.

    I am a strong supporter of more decentralization in our infrastructure. It empowers people and produces a system that is more robust that can recover better if it takes a hit, whether natural or man-made.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Just a Thought.... · 8 years ago
    Michael,

    As ever a great in-depth report and full of lots of relevant detail, but perhaps just a bit too fanciful to suggest there maybe similarities in their developments......Nepal is not Muslim.
    Just a thought.......

    Also, there are already technologies available for exploiting poppy into bio-fuel...it's just that there is no need for it in Afghnistan!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 8 years ago
    Hi Michael your article convinced me to crank up some energy and bio-green domains I have been holding in reserve for just such an occasion as your article and the ironic confluence of the BP/TransOcean debacle.

    I have posited an article on Methane production and have linked back to this article on your great site. I hope you do not mind that I have used one of your photos from your article, complete with credits:-)

    Here is the link: http://homefueldepot.com/?p=26

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