Heating Homes With Human Waste is Saving Lives and Tigers in Nepal
Friday, August 5, 2011
Dirt gets a bad rap. I’m sitting on a dirt floor in Badreni, Nepal, in a home built largely of dirt (waddle and daub) and there’s nothing dirty at all about this place. I’m a guest in a biogas home–one of 7,500 the WWF has helped build to date and one of 40,000 that will dot this Nepalese landscape five years from now.
A small but powerful blue flame whispers in the corner and brings light to the faces of my host family. That flame lights and heats the home; it also warms the Chiya tea we’re all anxious to drink.
The biogas home is about as low on the low-tech totem pole you can go because it all begins with, well… let’s just say that one man’s waste is quite literally another’s gold in this equation. Cow dung, human excrement and a bit of water make up the slurry that ferments in a simple cement-lined pit. Some elbow grease to stir a crank, a heavy dose of microbial action and–voila!–a clean, odorless, and life-changing gas.
I say that this is life-changing because women once confined to a smoke-filled kitchen area for much of the day no longer face an almost certain future of respiratory illness. It’s life-changing because those same women no longer have to spend two to three hours of every day searching for sticks or hacking trees in a forest with some very cool but rather unfriendly neighbors (think snakes, rhinos, elephants, and the highest density of tigers in the world). That time saved can be spent on everything from enjoying the Himalayan backdrop in the company of family to going to school. And the spent slurry can be used as potent and easy-to-work fertilizer that dramatically bumps crop productivity and food security.
That little blue flame has become a symbol of hope and a powerful tool for overcoming poverty in this landscape.
We’re in what’s called the Terai-Arc of Nepal, a narrow band of forests and grasslands nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. “Pristine” or “primeval” are words that don’t work here. Humanity has kneaded this place into a patchwork of villages and secondary forests. Eleven protected areas–like Chitwan and Bardia–form something of a conservation core. WWF, the local and national government, and the communities themselves have been working to reforest and stitch this place together in a way that benefits both people and animals. Again, enter the blue flame.