By Mushfique Wadud
KAPASIA, Bangladesh (AlertNet) - For Amirunnisa Begum, cooking has become much less burdensome now that she doesn’t have to struggle with smoke from the wood she used to burn on her old stove.
Begum, 50, never enjoyed using the wood-fired cooker that filled her whole house with smoke. But like most residents of Kapasia, a sub-district of Gazipur, 130km northeast of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, she had little choice as natural gas is not available in the area.
But her options changed when a local representative of the state-run Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) came and spoke to the community about using biogas as a clean-energy alternative to wood and oil.
“Cooking is much easier now as I can cook in a smoke-free atmosphere,” Begum told AlertNet. “It is also saving my monthly expenses on firewood and kerosene, and I am happy as I am doing something for the environment.”
Begum uses dung from her four cows to produce gas in a small, domestic biogas digester she has installed just outside her house.
It consists of two containers – one fed with a mix of manure and water each day, and another where the resulting biogas collects. With the gas, she can cook three meals a day for her six-member household.
Methane, released from manure, is a potent driver of climate change, and one way of curbing its harmful impact is to capture the greenhouse gas to produce biofuel.
Using this for cooking – and in some cases for heating and lighting too – can also help prevent deforestation, as there is less need for fuel wood. That keeps carbon stored in trees that would otherwise be cut down and burned.
Nazmul Haque Faisal, assistant director of IDCOL, said domestic biogas plants are changing rural lives in Bangladesh, and are a key tool for meeting household energy demand.
Solar power is another growing clean energy source for rural communities, who are looking for alternatives to increasingly expensive firewood and kerosene.
LOANS FOR INSTALLATION
Only a tiny fraction - around 3 percent - of Bangladeshis, mainly inhabitants of major cities, have a gas supply piped into their homes. But many rural families own manure-producing cows and poultry, which means biogas has huge potential for them, Faisal said.
The high cost of wood and kerosene has left rural households struggling to afford the energy they need, with many using up a large part of their income to buy fuel.
Begum said the same amount of firewood she paid 80 Bangladeshi Taka ($0.95) for just one year ago now costs Tk 120 ($1.43). The price of kerosene has nearly doubled from Tk 30 ($0.36) per litre in 2006 to Tk 56 ($0.67) today.
Bulbul Fokir, 35, another biogas producer in the area, said the gas is saving him the monthly Tk 2,000 ($23.87) he used to spend on fuel.
According to officials, constructing a domestic biogas plant costs around Tk 30,000 ($356), of which IDCOL provides an investment subsidy of Tk 9,000 ($107) per household.
If families don’t have the money to cover the upfront investment, they can repay it in instalments. Grameen Shakti and other microcredit organisations provide loans that make the biogas installations more affordable for villagers.
Bulbul said the biomass residue produced in making the gas can be also used as fertiliser, reducing the need to buy commercial products.
Forida Yesmin, a local official for Grameen Shakti, noted that in the early days, people had misconceptions about biogas. They thought it would contaminate their dwellings and food with a bad smell, or cause explosions.
But statistics suggest the organisation has been successful in convincing families of the advantages. The number of biogas users in Gazipur district has increased from around 200 in 2010 to 450 now, according to Yesmin.
CURBING FOREST LOSS
Nonetheless, local forests are still suffering because people not yet using biogas gather firewood there for their conventional stoves, she said.
“If we can make people aware and they use biogas, the nearby forest can be saved,” said biogas enthusiast Begum, admitting that she too used to collect wood in the vicinity of her home.
Bangladesh’s forest coverage has dwindled to only 9 percent, according to government statistics.
The U.S. government aid agency, USAID, believes the problem is even worse, and 95 percent of Bangladesh’s natural forests have been lost or degraded. The South Asian nation now has among the smallest areas of protected and intact forest in the world, at 1.4 percent of its landmass.
But the government is hoping its six-year National Domestic Biogas and Manure Programme - which began in 2006 and will end in December 2012 - can help curb that rate of loss.
According to IDCOL’s Faisal, some 21,700 biogas plants had been built by December 2011, and the aim is to bring the total to 36,279 by December this year.
To roll out the $19 million initiative across the country, the government is working with 38 partners, including lending, construction and manufacturing organisations. They also train local people in using biogas and field workers in motivating communities to adopt biofuel.
In addition, the programme is running a nationwide awareness-raising campaign to help people understand the benefits of biogas and the process of installing a domestic plant, by means of posters, leaflets, television and radio.
“We are emphasising biogas as we believe it will help poverty reduction,” Faisal explained.
That wider goal will be achieved through savings on energy costs, higher agriculture production from the use of bio-slurry as fertiliser, empowering women though their participation in the programme, improved health from cleaner cooking, and better sanitation where toilets are built that connect with the bio-digesters.
“It also provides opportunities for local employment,” added Faisal.
Mushfique Wadud is a Dhaka-based journalist with Bangladesh's English language daily, New Age This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.