Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas

In Laos, 'Gobar Gas' is called 'Gaz Sivulphap.'  The program is not sparking as well in Laos because, for instance, they still have many trees.  Families don’t have to walk far or pay for wood, but they are gnawing through the supply.

Australian 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 a traveler needs a satphone or cell phone charged, they must only find one of these places and a local will charge your batteries while you have tea.  In some places, including Iraq, 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 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.

The people of Bhatti, Nepal—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 traveling—up to three days to and fro—to buy permission from other villages to pull wood from jungle areas. Even the men had to spend their time scratching for wood. 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 sheep, horses, a cow, dozens of people, and thousands of lizards.

Villagers dry the dung in the sun and collect it into big stacks, as people do in India, Nepal, and across parts of the Third World. 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 blanketed by forests. If there ever were trees around KQ, they are gone. Any wild plants that can survive here must taste bitter to man and beast. There is no local wood. When the manure is burned, it chokes those nearby, and then it’s 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 leaching around. 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 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.

An outside stove in KQ.  Many Afghans cook indoors.

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. There are 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, 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 a 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.

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

Good for Business

Biogas brings national-level benefits to countries such as Nepal, helping to spur business, and has created employment for about 9,000 Nepalese. These include jobs for local masons, who are trained as biogas technicians. The real magic for rural development professionals: biogas programs create a new, sustainable profession even in depressed rural areas.

Today, the challenges for Mr. Rai revolve around nurturing a holistic business sector by simultaneously prodding supply—including the development of biogas appliances—and demand. BSP-Nepal, with 30 employees, has a presence in 75 districts. Challenges remain, especially in remote areas, but the program is growing steadily.

Another Nepalese family with Gobar Gas

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.

In closing, Lalit the Gurkha soldier has created a chain reaction. After intensive research and talking with experts in various countries, Afghanistan is a clear candidate for Gobar Gas development. The wheels have started turning.

Thank you Lalit, and SNV.

1 This is an abridged version of a far more detailed dispatch that required months of intensive research in Afghanistan, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, with a genesis in Borneo. Since I completed this research and matchmaking, SNV is seriously considering a biogas program in Afghanistan. Military force cannot win the war alone. Organizations like SNV, which raise the standard of living, can make significant contributions.


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