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Empathy from the Field: Biogas Units Create Social and Economic Advances in Rural Nepal

The installation of biogas units at residents’ homes is changing the lives of people living in rural Nepal. Collaboration by governments and organizations worldwide has orchestrated the construction of 285,000 biogas units throughout the country.

By Nima Kafle, Global Press Journal

Nima Kafle is a reporter from Golbal Press Journal's Nepal Desk. Global Press Journal is the news platform of Global Press Institute. The Journal showcases the world's best local, independent news coverage, written by women in the developing world. You can visit their website at www.globalpressjournal.com.

October 23, 2013

Editor's Note: This post is the first in our "Empathy from the Field" series, produced by Ashoka Fellow Cristi Hegranes' organization, Global Press Journal. In this series, we aim to show the impact that empathy can have not only in the classroom, but in the real world as well. Here is the second post in the series.

This article was written by Nima Kafle, a reporter for the Nepal News Desk.

LAYAKPUR, NEPAL – Khunti Chaudhary, 40, says her life changed dramatically three months ago thanks to the installation of a biogas unit at her home. 

A resident of Layakpur, a rural community in southwestern Nepal, Chaudhary collected firewood as part of her daily routine. After finishing her household chores each day, she headed to the jungle to collect the firewood she needed to cook two daily meals for her family. 

Often, she spent all day looking for firewood. But that all stopped in March 2013 when her family was able to install a biogas unit at their home for free, thanks to a program powered by the collaboration of various international and local governmental and nongovernmental partners. A biogas unit, also known locally as a biogas plant, converts cow dung into energy and transports it to a stove for domestic use. 

“Biogas has made my life easy,” Chaudhary says. “It was so difficult to cook by the firewood for [a] family of 15.” 

Chaudhary is also able to use the residue that the biogas produces as a nonchemical fertilizer. This has enabled her to start working as an organic farmer, growing vegetables such as eggplant. 

Women in rural Nepal say that they are finally able to focus on making a living and getting involved in their communities now that they are free from the daily burden of collecting firewood thanks to new biogas units at their homes. In addition, the use of biogas improves health conditions and conserves local forests. They are also saving the government millions of rupees. Obtaining water and dung to produce biogas can be a challenge, but overall, popularity of the alternative energy source continues to increase. 

A biogas unit runs mainly off cow dung and water that users mix in its outdoor cement pit, says Keshav Khanal, the coordinator of sustainable landscapes for a partner program in the project, the Hariyo Ban Program. This generates a gas, which travels through a pipe into an indoor stove that families can use for cooking. 

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In Nepal, 2.4 percent of the population now uses biogas for cooking, according to the National Population and Housing Census 2011. This represents an increase from 1.6 percent in the 2001 census. 

Although the biogas movement began decades ago in Nepal, it has gained significant momentum since the 1990s. 

The Nepal office of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, an international nonprofit organization, established the Biogas Support Program in 1992, says Bharat Paudel, senior engineer at the Alternative Energy Promotion Center. Four years later, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment established the Alternative Energy Promotion Center, the main government institution that facilitates the biogas program by disbursing financial assistance for installing biogas units. 

Today, various international nongovernmental organizations give funding to the Nepalese government to help finance the installation of biogas units, which local organizations carry out. The government gives grants of 24,000 rupees ($245) through the Alternative Energy Promotion Center to local nongovernmental organizations for each biogas unit it installs at homes at no cost to families. 

The Biogas Support Program has installed 285,000 units throughout the country, according to the Alternative Energy Promotion Center. 

The switch to biogas has helped people in villages to become financially stable. This, in turn, has enabled them to get more involved in their communities. 

Jhukri Devi Chaudhary, 35, who is not related to Khunti Chaudhary, says she always wanted to participate in community development programs in Layakpur. But instead, she had to worry about collecting firewood as her family’s main source of energy. She used to skip community meetings in order to walk to the forest nearly a kilometer (0.62 miles) from her home to collect firewood, she says. But then, her family received a biogas unit to install at their home. Now, she does not spend time looking for firewood. This enables her to be a more active participant in community programs, with a particular focus on advancing human rights. 

Thagiya Tharu, 40, a resident of the Dhodari village development committee, also used to spend her days collecting firewood, she says. But with a new biogas stove as well, she is also able to play a more active role in her community. 

“I used to spend more than seven hours a day for collecting firewood to cook two meals a day,” Tharu says. “But the daily routine in my life has been changed. Now, I spend my time for women’s welfare and in the meetings and interactions related to community development.” 

In addition to getting more involved in the community to promote human rights and women’s rights, residents are also using their additional time and resources to generate income for their families. 

Apart from eliminating the daily use of firewood, biogas produces a residue that vegetable farmers use as a nonchemical fertilizer, Tharu says. After the installation of a biogas unit, she and her husband took up vegetable farming with their additional time to earn extra money. 

“Emulating me, other local women have also installed biogas plants at their homes and are using the time in other income-generating activities and saving money,” she says. “Previously, I was utterly frustrated with the dire economic condition of my family. Now, I feel that I have got a new life.” 

Her husband, Mohan Tharu, 52, says that using biogas also saves the couple money by eliminating previous energy expenses. 

“We faced problems while collecting firewood in the forest,” he says. “The forest personnel would arrest us [for] cutting larger branches, and the small ones wouldn’t last long as fuel at home. Therefore, at times we were forced to buy fuelwood.” 

Buying the fuelwood caused an additional financial burden, though, he says. So the installation of the biogas unit has enabled the couple to be more financially stable. This has put them in a position to help others as well. 

“Previously, we used to request loans even for our daily expenses,” he says. “But now, others come to us for loans.”   The increasing use of biogas also benefits residents’ health.

Indoor pollution from fuelwood in Nepal is among the worst in the world, according to a 2011 report from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Linking respiratory and eye ailments to the smoke that firewood produces, the report states that smokeless biogas has greatly mitigated both problems. 

Asha Tharu, a resident of Suryapatuwa village development committee who is not related to the Tharu couple, also used wood fires for energy before the installation of a biogas unit at her home, she says. She used to stagger while blowing the fire in the kitchen to start or to maintain it. 

“Many times, I felt unconscious,” she says. “But still, I had to be there or else the fire would die out if not blown from time to time.” 

She suffered from a persistent cough because of the smoke. Biogas has made her aware of this health problem as well as has provided a solution, she says. 

“It has only been a year since the installation, and I have now realized how badly I was suffering all these years,” she says. 

Khunti Chaudhary also struggled with health problems when using wood fires. 

“Excessive smoke would come out in the kitchen while cooking by the firewood, causing difficulty in respiration,” she says. “I always wanted to run away from the kitchen. Now, with smokeless biogas, food is cooked faster, and I don’t mind spending time in the kitchen.” 

Biogas also contributes to the conservation of Nepal’s environment, residents say. One biogas unit saves 4.5 metric tons (4.95 short tons) of fuelwood per year, says Tilak Dhakal, the project co-manager of the Terai Arc Landscape Programme, which contributes funding to the biogas program.   Keshav Rawal, a teacher in Layakpur, says his village depended on 65 hectares (160 acres) of community forest for firewood and a place to graze their cattle. But the forest could not provide wood for the whole village, and the community was slowly depleting the forests’ resources. 

“With the installation of biogas, the local forest has been saved,” Rawal says. “Previously, people flocked into the forest for firewood and grazing of cattle, thereby destroying the vegetation and bushes.” 

Biogas has reduced the need for firewood and has forced people to keep their cattle at home so they can better collect dung to power their units, he says. This has prevented much deforestation.   

Moreover, biogas controls emissions of methane and carbon – greenhouse gases that are major contributors to climate change, Dhakal says. 

The Alternative Energy Promotion Centre projects that the use of biogas through the projects registered in Nepal under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Clean Development Mechanism will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 217,000 metric tons (238,700 short tons) per year, Paudel says. 

“Control of the causative agents of climate change – methane and carbon – can help reduce global warming,” he says. 

In addition to benefiting the environment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions earns the government revenue. 

“The Special Climate Change Fund, established under the United Nations, provides funds to the countries that reduce carbon and methane emission,” Paudel says. 

To date, the government has also earned 275 million rupees ($2.8 million) through international carbon trading, which is the buying and selling of environmental services, Paudel says. If people continue to maximize their use of biogas, the government can earn more than 238 million rupees ($2.45 million) in additional revenue per year through carbon trading. 

Although many residents express gratitude for the free biogas units, there are still some challenges to using them.   For example, water and dung may seem like available resources to power the unit, Paudel says. But if a village has a water problem or a family does not have enough cattle, biogas can be hard to make. 

Still, the benefits far outweigh these challenges, Paudel says. This has caused a quick rise in the number of biogas users in the country.   

Interviews were translated from Nepali.

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Global Press Journal reporters are from the regions where they report, so they speak local languages, understand local cultures and find stories outsiders often miss. Their reporters uncover problems, but they also find stories about solutions: stories about what happens when biogas units are installed in hundreds of thousands of homes in Nepal, what urban gardeners in Argentina are doing to fight hunger, or how one Ugandan woman is changing the face of her country’s comedy scene. The solutions are homegrown and sustainable, proving that when people care, change is possible.

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