Cow droppings can break the cycle of poverty. By using appropriate, simple technology,
animal and human waste can be turned into cooking gas, leaving an environmentally
friendly fertilizer as the only residue.
COOKING WITH GAS: Mum Have, eldest daughter in the family. Human and animal waste is mixed with water which drains into a plastic barrel dug into the ground outside, the biodigester. Methane gas is produced and brought by plastic pipe into the kitchen for cooking.
For Sin Ngee, his wife Teks Kam and their ten children, things are looking better.
Like the rest of the farming families in Tamaung, a poor village in Takeo province,
they have benefited from biodigesters installed by the Cambodian Rural Development
Team (CRDT), a registered community organization.
The technology is simple. The waste is mixed with water which drains into in a plastic
barrel that is dug into the ground. In the process, methane gas is produced.
Kam lights the gas flame at the stove. Before, she says, they had to search for fuel
wood around the rice fields. It was a hard and time-consuming work. Now, there is
a plastic pipe feeding gas from the biodigester outside their house into the kitchen.
"I am very happy to use it. It saves time and there is no smoke and smell, like
from the wood," she says.
The biodigester is just one of the recent improvements in Ngee and Kam's lives. Before
they used to take their drinking water from the same pond as the animals. Now, there
is a new communal well around the corner from their house. And with the family's
first toilet, a simple hole right above the biodigester, their sanitary conditions
are also much better.
Ngee empties the biodigester of its muddy but scentless leftovers. He throws some
of it into the fish pond, and spreads the rest over the adjacent vegetable garden,
as an organic fertilizer.
After putting fish and vegetables on family members' plates, Ngee and Kam say that
there is still enough food left for them to sell to make about 50,000 riel a month.
And as they no longer have to buy chemical fertilizers, they say they have more money
to spend on their children's schooling.
Even though the family is new in fish farming, Ngee is already digging a second pond.
"In the future, I hope this will make our lives better," he says, showing
the half-finished hole.
The biodigester, the vegetable garden, the fish pond and the communal well are all
part of the CRDT's food security package. Funded by the Australian aid agency AusAID,
it is the CRDT's third project so far. It started in December last year and was finished
Hang Vong, from the CRDT, says the key to success has been training the villagers
and involving them in the project. It is important to remember that they are practical
people with little education, he says. The training must be easy and concrete.
"I try to find simple words and use a lot of pictures," he says. "And
I spend a lot of time showing how it works practically.
"But it is also important to have time to have some breaks. Sit down, tell some
funny stories and eat together."
Like his Khmer colleagues at the CRDT, Hang Vong himself has a rural background.
This helps him in his work, he says.
"Because I come from a similar village, I know the way people live and talk."
Australian Brendan Boucher is co-coordinator for the CRDT. He is full of praise for
his team members' commitment.
"It takes a tremendous skill to instruct the villagers and gain their cooperation
and support," he says. "But it is a skill this team has. They understand
the culture and the mindset of the villagers."
By giving the villagers an active role, Boucher hopes to ensure that the project
will improve over time, long after the CRDT has left. He sees the fifteen new fish
ponds the villagers have dug themselves after project completion as a sign of success.
The CRDT tries to keep its overhead to a minimum. There are no foreign experts working
on the ground, no jeeps, no city offices; and when purchasing services like well
drilling, they say they get better prices by not mentioning that they are an aid
organization. In Tamaung village, the total cost for installing 32 biodigesters,
ten wells, three fish ponds and vegetable gardens was $13,500.
"I think the donors see that we do a lot with a little," Boucher says.
Although there are millions of biodigesters in other parts of the world, they are
virtually unheard of in Cambodia. They are useful in areas where fuel wood is scarce
and soils are poor, and Boucher sees a much greater place for them in Cambodia.
"Biodigesters are incredibly simple. That is the beauty of it."