Nguyen Thi Huong, a paddy rice farmer in central Vietnam’s Phong Binh commune, enjoys cooking in her smoke-free and pollution-free kitchen.
“Before the advent of clean biogas, cooking was an uneasy and hazardous job for me. My kitchen would become smoky with black particles coming out from the muddy stove from fuel wood burning. The black ash would make me cough the whole day and cause soreness in my eyes,” recounted the 35-year-old.
For Huong, a mother of two children, collecting fuel wood daily from the nearby mangroves forest was a no less tedious task, particularly when she was already busy rearing pigs, looking after children, and doing house chores.
But a biogas system provided by Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) International has made her life much easier, Huong said.
The clean biogas fire “has got rid of my cough and eye infections, and given me a sense of cleanliness,” she said – not least because her village now also has a solution to its former animal manure problem.
The Phong Binh commune is a low-lying coastal area in the Phong Dien district, some 45 kilometers (28 miles) northwest of the city of Hue.
Stretched over nearly 690 hectares (1,700 acres), around 91 percent of the area is in rice production and livestock, and fishing is a secondary source of work during the non-rice-sowing season. The commune has 1,717 households, with over 8,000 people living across 10 villages.
Nguyen The Dong, one livestock farmer, remembers how managing animal manure used to be a serious problem for the community.
But Dong now has a biogas plant that is turning the stinky manure from his 100 buffalos, as many pigs, and over 200 ducks into a useful resource.
“I feed the bio-digester with manure everyday, which after an anaerobic process churns out clean gas for our kitchen. I also use this gas for lighting during the night and boiling water for bathing during winter,” he said.
More than 70 percent of Vietnam’s people live in rural areas, earning a livelihood from agriculture, animal husbandry, and fishing. Most rely on wood, charcoal, agricultural residue, and dried animal dung for their energy needs.
Gathering the traditional fuels also devours precious daylight hours that children and women in particular might otherwise spend at school, or in income-generating or social activities.
But development organizations like Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and SNV, a Dutch development organization are now promoting the use of biogas from manure in the region. NCA has provided 82 biogas plants along with energy-efficient stoves in Phong Binh commune.
The change is reducing pressure on mangroves and other forests in the area and allowing farmers to use the nutrient-rich slurry left over from the biogas digesters as a crop fertilizer, said Hoang Thi Thanh Mai, an NCA clean energy expert.
“Bio-slurry is really good, as it has improved soil fertility. Its application has reduced bills for chemical fertilizer, whose cost has risen a lot over the years, making cultivating of crops financially difficult for many small farmers like me,” Dong said.
SNV officials say that since 2006 the organization has, in conjunction with Vietnam’s government, installed 78,000 biogas plants in more than 30 provinces of the country. The plants have benefited more than 400,000 people and are reducing the country’s carbon emissions by 167,000 tons a year, the officials said.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam has now launched an ambitious program with the SNV to install an additional 168,000 biogas systems by the end of 2012.
With a lifespan of 15 years, one biogas plant costs an estimated $500, which is a sizable investment for a farming family with moderate income. But clean energy experts say the advantages make it worth the investment for many families.
On average, farmers with at least two head of cattle or six pigs can generate sufficient biogas to meet their daily basic cooking and lighting needs.
The investment in a biogas plant is recovered in about three years, said Bastiaan Tenue, SNV’s biogas adviser in Vietnam.
Apart from the household benefits, use of biogas can protect forests, fuel new businesses, and improve air quality, he said. Reports by international and national nongovernmental organizations in Vietnam suggest more than 300,000 jobs have been created in biogas energy since 2003, including many for village people trained in biogas plant construction.
Dao Ngoc Bay in Phong Binh commune is one of them.
“I have built a number of biogas plants for SNV, which imparted me training on biogas plant construction. Now, I am happy that people are calling on my cellphone and asking me build biogas plants for them. I will continue to build biogas plants for private customers as long as there is demand, said the 35-year-old mason.
“Biogas is here to stay as long as there are farmers raising their cattle in Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific countries, most of which are extremely vulnerable to effects of climate change and shrinking natural capital,” he said.
“Alone in Vietnam there are over 1 million households that qualify for a biogas plant,” he said.
• Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.
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