Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas

(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 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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