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Saving People and Wildlife in the Sacred Valleys of Nepal

The majestic Himalayas are the highest mountain range in the world and home to the Earth’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Sitting beneath these towering peaks are the fertile lowlands of Nepal – a region of sacred valleys, grasslands, and forests known as the Terai Arc Landscape. This lush area is home to some of the world’s rarest species, including tigers, elephants and one-horned rhinos.

This region is also home to more than 8 million people, many of whom live on less than $1 to $2 a day. As electricity remains a privilege unavailable to most poor families, more than 60 percent of households here rely on massive amounts of wood for their daily cooking needs. On average, each person uses up to 2,000 pounds of wood a year. That amounts to a huge number of trees being cut down.

The loss of these forests has serious consequences for both wildlife and people. The use of forests for fuel is central to one of the world’s greatest social and health threats. Each year, 4 million people, mainly women and children, die prematurely from respiratory illnesses as a result of inhaling smoke in the home. This is more than the annual number of deaths caused by malaria, tuberculosis or AIDS.

Tigers and other dwindling species that live in Nepal’s Terai Arc are losing precious habitat, hindering their chances of survival. On a local scale, deforestation causes erosion, alters the water cycle, and exacerbates poverty. On a global scale, the loss of forests due to unsustainable fuel wood use leads to global climate change. An estimated 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation and degradation, including a significant portion that stems from fuel wood consumption. Moreover, it is estimated that open fires and inefficient cookstoves are responsible for about a quarter of global black carbon emissions – a leading cause of Arctic ice-melt.

But what if there was a straightforward, cost-effective solution to these problems? There is, and it comes in the form of biogas-powered cookstoves. WWF is working with communities in the Terai Arc to implement this simple – but profoundly impactful – technology.

To address these global challenges and provide benefits to people and nature, WWF is an implementing partner with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private initiative led by the UN Foundation to help 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by the year 2020. The Terai Arc in Nepal is one of WWF’s priority regions for expanding the use of biogas stoves.

What is Biogas?

Biogas is an alternative fuel produced by the fermentation of animal and human waste by naturally occurring bacteria in the absence of oxygen. Biogas composed primarily of methane and carbon dioxide and can be used as an alternative to wood for cooking and heating.

The biogas plant is a simple structure that is built on site. It includes: an inlet where waste and water are mixed for the digester; the digester, where the “waste” mixture sits for 55 to 70 days and produces biogas; and a fixed dome, where the biogas is collected. An outlet pipe from the biogas dome leads to the kitchen, where the biogas is connected to an improved stove for cooking.

WWF also provides funding to families who do not own a toilet to attach one to the biogas plant to increase outputs and improve household sanitation and health. The used waste or “slurry” once the biogas has been generated can also be used for fertilizer to increase agricultural productivity and increase income for the Nepali farmers.

Bringing Biogas to the Terai Arc in Nepal

WWF has been working with communities in Nepal’s Terai Arc region to implement biogas cookstoves since 2007. During the program’s first phase, we constructed 7,500 biogas plants connected to improved stoves that are benefitting the lives of 37,500 people.

The far-reaching benefits of this project will include:

  • Eliminating smoke from the home.
  • Reducing respiratory illnesses and death related to the inhalation of polluted smoke.
  • Reducing climate change and the loss of forests.
  • Providing microloans to communities (the loans are locally managed by the communities and the interest can be spent on building infrastructure like roads or schools).
  • Freeing up time women and children would otherwise spend collecting firewood for education and income-generating activities.
  • Protecting critical habitat for rare wild animals like tigers, elephants and rhinos.

It is rare to find a simple, affordable solution that produces immediate and long-term results for both communities and the environment. WWF’s Nepal Biogas Project does just that. The project’s impacts are deep and extensive. For local families, it reduces life-threatening illnesses from smoke inhalation, offers new forms of finance to invest in needed infrastructure, and allows women and children to devote more time to school and income-generating activities as they no longer have to spend hours each day collecting wood. By reducing deforestation, the project is helping to conserve the local environment and protect habitat for threatened species like tigers, rhinos and elephants that live within the forests and grasslands of the Terai Arc. These biogas-powered cookstoves also reduce CO2 emissions, minimizing contributions to global warming. Seldom do you find an initiative that produces so many valuable outcomes in a cost-effective and timely manner.