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Update on biogas in Nepal

Summary from Biogas and natural resources management (BNRM) Nepal'

With the rapid depletion of forest resources in Nepal, alternative sources of energy must be sought. Biogas is one of these sources, which not only saves firewood but also has the potential to increase soil fertility, improve sanitation and reduce the workload of women.

In November 1992, an agreement entitled the 'Biogas Support Programme (BSP)' was signed between His Majesty's Government of Nepal and the Netherlands Development Organization. The long term objectives of the BSP are:

· to reduce the rate of deforestation and environmental deterioration by providing biogas as a substitute for fuelwood and dung cakes in order to meet the energy demands of the rural population;

· to improve health and sanitation of the rural population, especially women. This was to be achieved: by elimination of smoke produced during cooking on firewood; by reduction of the hardship involved in the collection of firewood; and by stimulation of better methods for dealing with dung and night-soil;

· to increase agricultural production by promoting an optimal use of digested dung as organic fertilizer..

The programme was divided into two phases. The short-term objectives, to be reached by July 1994, were:

· to construct 7000 biogas plants;
· to make biogas more attractive to small farmers, and farmers in the hills;
· to formulate recommendations on the privatization of the biogas sector in Nepal.

The second phase, started in July 1994, has the following aims:

· to install 13 000 quality biogas plants using both the implementing agency and private construction companies;
· to support the establishment of an apex body to co-ordinate the different actors in the biogas sector.

Dung is the main potential source of biogas. The production of biogas is limited by altitude and access to water. The number of households with cattle and or buffalo in Nepal in 1992 was calculated as about two million. Installation of biogas is technically possible for 65 per cent of these households (about 1.3 million), with average digester size estimated as about seven cubic metres.

The project to date

Six different sizes of digester have been installed ranging from four to twenty cubic metres total capacity (digester plus dome).

These plants work well for households with cattle but have not proved successful for community biogas plants, mainly because of social factors.

By providing a subsidy whose value was the same for all sizes of plant, small farmers with few cattle were encouraged to take part in the scheme. A larger subsidy was given for those living in the hill districts as the transportation costs of moving the digester on to their farms was perceived to be greater.

At present, twenty-three biogas companies construct and install biogas plants and eight more have been approved to construct them. Recently, the Nepal Biogas Promotion Group has been established. Promotion, training and extension will be taken up by this group in the near future. NGOs have entered into agreements with biogas companies to promote biogas in their regions. Two banks have recently decided to invest in the scheme, and this has helped to finance the programme.

Strong emphasis has been given to the quality of construction, maintenance and operation of the biogas plants.

Impacts and benefits

Several studies have shown indoor air pollution and smoke exposure in rural Nepal, expressed in respirable suspended particulates (RSP), carbon monoxide (CO) and formaldehyde (HCHO) to be among the worst in the world. Smoke is one of the major risk factors for acute respiratory infections in infants and children and is a major cause of child mortality in Nepal. The installation of biogas plants has resulted in significant health benefits. The main positive effect is on the level of indoor air pollution. Eye ailments, commonly associated with smoke-filled rooms have been reduced by the reduction in smoke.

It has been estimated that just over three hours a day can be saved by an average household by installing biogas.

Women who use biogas express great satisfaction with it. They are able to do other activities as the cooker does not require constant attention. In summer, the heat produced is less; however, in winter they miss the extra warmth.

Biogas can only be used by farmers who own cattle. The poorest in society therefore do not benefit directly. Nevertheless, by promoting biogas use, pressure on the more traditional fuelwood sources is reduced and if fuelwood is more plentiful, the poorest people may be indirect beneficiaries.