Michael's Dispatches26 Comments
- Published: Tuesday, 15 June 2010 12:56
Published 15 June 2010
Brunei, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
Among the more interesting coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan are the legendary Nepalese Gurkhas. Trained and fielded by the British, as they have been since colonial days, Gurkhas are a fascinating admixture: today many are British soldiers used to traveling the world. Many of them grew up barefoot and poor in remote and primitive mountain villages in the high Himalayas: places that closely resemble parts of Afghanistan, geographically and culturally. They understand impoverished life in a harsh environment personally, though Nepal has enjoyed some material progress in the last few decades. That combination of background and experience makes Gurkhas helpful at generating useful approaches to Afghan development. They know what is possible, and they’ve seen experiments succeed or fail.
A Gurkha veteran named Lalit whom I met, deep in the jungles of Borneo, at a British Army man-tracking school, came with good ideas. Lalit began a conversation by announcing that many of Afghanistan's energy, land restoration and fuel needs could be solved if the Afghans would immediately adopt "Gobar Gas" production. This mysterious substance could improve the lives of Afghans as it had that of the Nepalese, he said, as, with great enthusiasm, he began to explain.
I returned to Afghanistan, this time to areas of Ghor, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. No Afghan along the way had heard of Gobar Gas. I flew to Nepal to talk with Gobar Gas experts and users.
Physically, Nepal and Afghanistan share striking similarities. Both contain extreme mountains and have few roads. The mountains are harder still to live in, because of the lack of electricity, transportation, communications technology and just about anything else associated with modern societies. Both countries have, unfortunately, been saddled with corrupt governments, universally mistrusted. They each have about 30 million people—eighty percent of whom are subsistence farmers, living in small villages. The median age in both places is under 20, suggesting future crises. Half of the Nepalese are literate; perhaps a third of Afghan men can read, now, in the opening decades of the 21st century.
Desires, complaints and problems in both places often run parallel. Sizable populations are isolated for months each year by snow, rain and landslides—or just lack of bridges. Government influence in both countries mostly ends with paved roads. (Though Nepal actually has a government of sorts, and not surprisingly, far more roads, if still few.) In the hinterlands life remains primitive. Government edicts and ideas issued from Kabul or Kathmandu are unheard or ignored—the words might as well come from Timbuktu or the Moon.
A remarkable difference in Nepal is that most ethnic and religious groups coexist reasonably well, and despite their recent civil war the Nepalese are less prone to allowing rule by local warlords, general violence, and especially violence directed toward outsiders. Even during peak wartimes I had no difficulties walking hundreds of miles through contested areas in Nepal. Though Nepal is one of the poorest, least developed countries on Earth, and despite rampant corruption and recent war, progress is perceptible.
Nepal is arguably a half-century ahead of Afghanistan in governance, education, press, and tourism; the steady stream of intrepid travelers who want to visit Kathmandu and trek the Himalayas is the country’s good fortune. Even during wartime fighters leave tourists alone. Old-timers in Nepal say that in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, few boys and almost no girls outside the ruling elite went to school. Today education is ever increasing in Nepal—though not universal. Democracy was first tasted in Nepal in 1950, but did not truly take hold until 1990. The trend lines are slow but good. (Some educated Nepalese might take issue with the previous sentence.)
Though Nepal is still poor and underdeveloped, if Afghanistan reached Nepal’s current level in a few decades, that would rightly be considered a success. And so Nepal has become a sort of looking-glass for Afghanistan. It’s a good place to search for insight and ideas that might be applied in Afghanistan. The Gurkha idea for Gobar Gas was a pearl from Nepal.
“Gobar” is the Nepali word for cow dung. The “Gas” refers to biogas derived from the natural decay of dung and other waste products and biomass. In Nepal, villagers use buffalo, cow, human, and other waste products for biogas production. Pig and chicken dung are used in some places, as are raw kitchen wastes, including rotted vegetation.
Gobar is typically mixed with a roughly equal amount of water, and gravity-fed through a pipe into an airtight underground “digester,” where naturally occurring bacteria feast on the mixture. This anaerobic process produces small but precious amounts of gas. That gas can be fed directly into a heat source, such as a cooking stove, and used to power it.
The biogas that is produced is 50-70% methane by volume, similar to natural gas, and a convenient source of clean energy. The biogas is easily collected and stored for lighting, cooking and other household uses. After the bacteria have finished digesting the dung, the byproduct is a rich organic fertilizer (sometimes called slurry). That fertilizer is more effective than raw dung, with two important benefits for hands-on farmers: it doesn’t smell bad, and almost all the pathogens and weed seeds have been destroyed. There is no downside. No waste. No poisonous residues or batteries. No moving parts. Gobar Gas is an astonishingly elegant tap into “the circle of life” that environmentalists, economists, development people and humanitarians should all appreciate.
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This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI love your articles about this excellent technology, Michael. I recently read an article in my local newspaper about an entrepreneur here in Georgia (USA) trying to make a large-scale gobar gas plant running off cow crap from all the farms, I got so excited after learning so much about it from you.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMr Yon;
Very interesting article. Gobar gas would seem to have potential in Afghanistan unless lack of water makes it impractical. I'm a farmer so I have a different perspective on manure. I suspect that farms in Afghanistan need all the manure they can get given the low organic matter of soils in a dry climate. The easiest way to apply manure is to graze either crop residues or crops grown for grazing; the problem in Afghanistan is enough water to support both. Ideally you grow a grazing crop after harvesting a grain or other cash crop using rainfall during the "wet" season usually the winter in desert areas(snow counts as rain). Wheat and barley can be grazed when young but animals must be removed when the grain crops starts to grow rapidly. Manure can also be applied by collecting it from pens and spreading it by hand. I doubt that there is a labor shortage in rural Afghanistan.
Soil organic matter is the single most important factor in maintaining productive erosion resitant soils. Fertilizers have a place but will not maintain soil organic matter levels by themselves. Manures and good crop rotations are vital, a fact lost to most US farmers. The PRTs could use some organic farmers who know how to build healthy soils. Besides fertilizer cost money, maunure does not. The answer to developing Afghan arigulture is not the wholesale blind adoption of modern technology but adapting methods to facts on the ground. For example, improving animal drawn implements can improve crop yields just as much as mechanization without the cost of equipment,fuel and parts. Again there is no shortage of farm labor so why bother to mechanize.
Several NGOs have developed portable solar cookers in Africa which cook meals with no wood. This approach might be more adaptable to Afghanistan than gobar gas.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoIn your article you eluded to the difference between Afghanistan and Nepal where in Nepal there is unity between the ethnic groups, whereas in Afghanistan much less. What do you consider to be the reasons for success in the one county and failure in the other?
Thank you so much for your writings and photos. You help me understand so much better the complexities of the conflicts.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
I love your articles, however, it’s obvious that you are just spinning your wheels. With all of the time you spent in Iraq reporting the truth about the war it pains me to see the military deliberately sidelining you when they could using you to win the hearts and minds of the people here at home.
Every time I see a report on the evening news with an ”In Depth Report From Afghanistan” it is quite obvious to read between the lines and watch those in-experienced “war journalist” scared witless when a shot is heard in the distance and far out of range. Their focus on the report is so scripted it sounds like it was written by a PsyOps officer and censored extensively.
The quality of those reports is completely lacking and always reminds me of the Russian propaganda machine when the Russians occupied Afghanistan.
All I see from the reporters today is a whitewash of the reality of the war and the Big Brass patting themselves on the back for the failures they claim as victories.
When you were there reporting we could trust that we were really getting the truth. Now, every word out of Gen McCrystal’s mouth sounds just like the bumbling Russian Generals all over again.
We no longer get to see and hear about our sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of Great Britain and other countries. Even though a report may have been of someone else’s son or daughter those reports from you were our lifeline to them.
It’s quite obvious that your boot from the war zone is retribution for exposing the failures and to cover up their continued failure in handling the war. Frankly, I believe that McCrystal and his whole command needs to be fired for lying to the American people.
McCrystal is a joke in the eyes of many people here at home. I don’t care how many people speak up for him. He’s still a joke to me.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael -
Excellent articles. My wife and I got turned on to an orphanage in Cambodia that saves kids from a life in the Steung Meanchey dump, among other things. A buddy of ours took some incredible pictures there, his style reminds me somewhat of yours... check www.anthonysloan.com if you have a chance. That said, it would seem to make sense to get in good with these orphanages... they are taking these incredibly disadvantaged kids and turning them into savy little business people. This one in particular, Cambodian Childrens Fund www.cambodianchildrensfund.org seems to do good work (and no, I'm not affiliated with it in any way). It might make sense for some of these Gobar Gas folks were to install gas facilities at the orphanages. The kids grow up understanding the benefits of the technology without having the cultural baggage that may otherwise be attached. Of course, I'm not sure if they have enough little kids or chickens to run the thing... :-) I'll forward your articles to them... if it makes sense for them I'd sure kick in a few $$$.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoMichael,
I was completely engrossed. I would expect to see full-issue articles of this caliber in NatGeo or The Economist. Have you submitted? Looking at the relatively low cost for residential installation, I almost want to give directly to subsidize these myself. Is there a charitable fund (with high flow-through percentage) dedicated to helping this international effort? All the money we pay in taxes and fees, yet a direct contribution would have such a longer-lasting and immediate impact.
Fantastic work. Thanks for the full-dispatch 'fix'. Looking forward to more.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoGreat job on this find. I stumbled across Gobar gas two years ago for my public policy course when searching for ways to reduce CO2 output while improving agricultural output (a next to impossible assignment given to me by my lecturers). It was the near-perfect solution with few drawbacks, great for farmers and also for appeasing the greens. My lecturers, alas, did not quite appreciate a technical solution, and were looking more for a political strategy to solve the problem.
As a political animal, Obama is likely the same. In addition, he is either too stupid or too traitorous to even consider this approach as part of a nation-building initiative.
PS. I'm not even an american!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThis would dovetail nicely with permaculture, a gardening-lifestyle schema that makes incredible use of rainwater and mulch and native perennial plants. Permaculture is also a bottom-up type thing, which is never sexy so it never gets talked about.
If these two ideas made love I am pretty sure that we can solve the base problems of the world.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoGreat article mate! As one of the co-respondents mentioned above, the use of animal dung may be limited but depending on social standards, human waste may be substituted. Whatever the case, this is such a great idea to adopt! The Ghurkas and Afghans have a natural affinity for one another and I would encourage the parties that be to adopt this as a urgent development approach.................utilise the Ghurkas as an acceptable means fo getting this started with the local population in Helmand province at least.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoDid you ever have a chance to utilize those skills? Would seem useful to backtrack from a buried IED.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoI believe by having some of the Nepalese representatives and the Gurkha soldiers leading this idea for a Gobar Gas system would be brilliant. Since both the Nepalese/Gurkha and the Afghans share so many similarities...what better way to bring in modernization to the Afghan people than by having a representative force/group that can teach them and mentor them in producing biogas collection systems. Not only would it help the economy and the Afghan population but it would also deplete the very frustrations of lack of electricity, gas/fuel, work, and oppotunities that the Taliban and insurgent groups have been feeding off of.
If the Coalition and the governments that are part of it are truly seeking a way to get of Afghanistan and help in its reconstruction and build up...than using the simplest methods is probably the easiest and in the long run the best. Provide the Afghans with renewable resources and as seen by the example of how Gobar Gas allowed kids to attend schools will help develop a generation of educated people who can lead their country to better things. Deprive the Taliban their greatest resources: frustrated civilians (due to shady government and police forces), lack of jobs (gives the farmers and villages if they use this Biogas system more time to grow crops or learn trades), lack of money (sell your part of the biogas to others or vice versa teach and build systems for others), lack of security (by building a stable economy and a renewable resource for energy and such a village or city like Kabul can train better soldiers and police officers who will be paid decently).
There is so much potential from this idea. Please Michael if you can gather a group of Nepalese businessmen, soldiers, mentors and so forth and do a test program in a village where you can see if indeed setting up a biogas system for the villagers for each house would do the trick in modernizing and helping the Afghan people in the long run!
Plus, if there is a donation system I would love to know about this too. A microfinancing system would work great or even simply a charitable donation would do the trick.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHello Michael,
Another fantastic and informative dispatch. Thanks. I have 2 questions about the viability of gobar gas in Afghanistan:
1- is there enough water in most areas to make it feasible? Areas like the "green zone" seem like they would, but much of the rest of the country seems like it would not. But perhaps their wells would be able to sustain the units.
2- I read recently (I think it was from a link from your site regarding the "new" mineral deposits in country) that Afghanistan has a pathetic, almost non-existent, concrete industry. Something like less than 2 kg/person per year. Due to that scarcity of concrete, are there other materials that could be used to make the units? Or are there plans to ramp up concrete capacity (outside of the mining industries)?
Keep up the great work!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agohello Michael.
It's nice to get more info about Gobar gas. As you said during your visit in Ghor in 2009, these people might use Gobar gas if they know how to do this. let's hope that one day they will discover what kind of benefits Gobar gas might give them
good luck in your future dispatches!
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoThanks for this informative article, really good stuff. Now I feel guilty about a comment I put on the Bangkok dispatch trying to give constructive criticism. This post about Gobar Gas is what I consider "classic Yon", an excellent in-depth coverage of a topic, with great photos, such that from my chair in Florida, I feel like I just took a pleasant trip and met interesting people and got an intimate knowledge of a specific thing. Previous dispatches in Afghanistan about the artillery units, the Pedros (did I remember that right? I mean the medivac helicopters), or accompanying Brits as they patrol on foot, are similar examples of what I'll call "classic Yon". Anyways, enough scrutiny of your style and content. Great article, and great idea (that Gobar Gas could be good for Afghanistan). Thanks.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years ago"Manure Digester" that will produce 750kW of electrical being installed.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoNote: Mr. Welborn - you had it right, Mr. Yon wrote an excellent article on the Pedros in Helmand Province. Those guys are still there and the Pedros actually suffered many casualties very recently when their bird was shot down. Let's all pray that there are no more casualties.
Regarding this article:
As a Master's student at UF's Ecological Engineering program, it's really great to hear about ecological engineering from a predominantly war-focused correspondent in an article that describes the benefits of the technology. In order to solve the energy, economic, and social problems of the world, we have to look to old-fashioned technologies that maximize the efficiency of natural processes (processes such as decomposition, described here). Nature provides all that we need, we just need to figure out how to use it efficiently and not wastefully. Your description of the villagers having to travel for more than 4 hours to find enough wood to cook is akin to the fall of the Roman empire due to deforestation and the near extinction of Easter Island residents due to the same reason. These modern-day villagers will continue to have to travel farther and farther to find wood, until it is completely unsustainable. An unsustainable lifestyle, whether it is McMansions and Hummers [already failed] in the US or wood-burning cook stoves in the deserts of Afghanistan, will eventually lead to more poverty and the social problems that come along with it (like joining the Taliban for some cash).
Mr. Yon, you have an excellent view of the world and I hope that more people will realize that it will take just as much social investment in MEANINGFUL programs as it takes in military investment to defeat the Taliban.
How about some comments on the "recent discovery" in Afghanistan of a trillion dollar's worth of gold, silver, copper, iron, and lithium? My first thought was, "yeah right, this was known all along because the Soviets knew about it in the 70's and 80's." And it all made sense to me, Afghanistan doesn't have oil, but heck, they have natural resources that might end up being just as good if not better, especially if lithium for batteries turns out to be a "gold mine" for modern technology.
This commment is unpublished.· 11 years agoHi Michael,
This is fascinating. I am going to Tanzania on Saturday to work on a development project and I will be thinking of this work while there. Can you tell me how I can get my hands on the book recommended above, please?
In addition, I am working on an anerobic digestion project currently so I am very excited at the prospects of this.
Thank you for this enlightening article.
This commment is unpublished.· 10 years agoMichael,
Great work for our troops! We are working closely with Ministry of Energy and Water to build and design biogas systems for communities and Afghan facilities. We can, we will! Best, Ed Mears, Major, US Forces-Afghanistan.
This commment is unpublished.· 9 years agohii
This commment is unpublished.· 8 years agoHello here is a great article
This commment is unpublished.· 8 years agolook at this
This commment is unpublished.· 7 years agoSALVAGING LIFE ON EARTH
The biggest cause for the degradation of environment is burning of fossil fuels
Burning of coal / gas / oil etc produces green-house gases , leading to global warming / floods / droughts etc
Everyone knows that the real long term solution is switching over to renewable energy sources such as wind / sun / tides etc
Can we tap earth's magnetism to produce abundant / unlimited / clean energy ?
I believe so and would request the scientists to consider my following suggestion :
Every school child knows that ,
> Electricity is generated when a copper wire is
rotated in any magnetic field
> Earth is surrounded by a very strong magnetic
> This magnetic field is generated by the rotation
of molten iron deep inside earth's core
> This magnetic field also protects us from
harmful ultra-violet rays / gamma radiations
Now , suppose we find a way to ,
> Construct a hollow cylinder of woven Copper
wires to envelope the earth , 100 miles above
the earth's surface ( like those thin rings of
Saturn ? )
> Then , using small rocket thrusts , rotate this
cylinder in the direction opposite of earth's
rotation , to cut through its magnetic field
Will that generate electricity ?
I think so
With international co-operation such a project would take less time - and possibly money too - than the already successful international projects of the International Space Station or the Large Hadron Collider of CERN
It may be exciting to discover the God Particle and understand what makes up mass but I think , it is far more useful to find a permanent / clean source of energy to prevent the extinction of all life on earth by burning fossil fuels
* hemen parekh ( 25 March 2014 / Mumbai )
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