Sustainable Rural Biomass Energy in Bhutan

Nov 24, 2015

74 year old karna Bahadur showing his oven to NFE instructor Tshering Dema. Photo credits: UNDP

Choden’s face would be covered in soot, scorched from the heat that gathered in her small kitchen. Tears would stream down her eyes as she operated the traditional cook stove she had been using to feed her family for 12 years.

“Collecting wood is very hard work. We spend two hours a day in the forests. The stove takes an hour to heat up and preparing meals takes another hour,” Choden says.  

In a baseline survey carried out in Bhutanese communities like Choden’s, it was found that 17.2 percent of respondents suffered from breathing problems, 26.4 percent from nasal problems and 56.4 percent from eye irritation from indoor pollution caused by the stoves.

Of those surveyed, children, women and the elderly were found to be worst affected by the pollution. Women in developing countries like Bhutan have high incidence of cardiovascular diseases due to traditional cooking methods.

But since 2013, the lives of the people in Choden’s community have begun to change. The Government of Bhutan and UNDP (with the support of the Global Environment Facility) initiated the Sustainable Rural Biomass Energy (SRBE) project to promote the use of biomass energy in cooking, heating and lighting in rural areas.

One of the main objectives of the project is to introduce fuel-efficient cook stoves to rural communities to decrease fuel wood consumption (and consequently reduce diseases resulting from traditional methods) and, ultimately, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Community members have been trained to install and operate the stoves, and women have been a special focus of the trainings, given that they are the primary users. The program partnered with non-formal education trainers and NGO staff to help raise awareness on biomass energy and the health problems associated with indoor pollution. Communities were also given a hands-on training on how to assemble and use the new stoves. 

Balraj Gurung, a 47-year-old farmer in Uttaray village, says that the new smokeless stove has freed up the time he used to spend on cooking and collecting firewood.

“With the new smokeless oven, I don’t have to sit around for hours monitoring the fire because I only have to light it once and use the heat controller to make it last longer and attend to other work,” he says.

The project has trained more than 400 technicians, with around 55 percent being female, to construct the new stoves. By December this year, a total of 12,500 stoves will be built. Ultimately, the project plans to provide some 14,000 stoves.

Another component of the program centers on community forest management. At 1.17 tonnes per person per year, Bhutan has one of the highest per capita domestic fuel wood consumption rates in the world. Moreover, with 70 percent of the population living in rural areas that depend on wood as the main source of energy for cooking, heating and lighting, the pressure on the forests is mounting.

The community forest management component is intended to reverse deforestation by planting trees in deforested/barren areas, ultimately covering more than 100 hectares. So far, 878 community forest management group members have been trained on sustainable fuel wood planting methods. The SRBE programme is expected to reduce annual biomass/fuel wood consumption by 183,214 tonnes by the end of 2015.

Although the project is scheduled to end by December this year, the government has expressed interest in up-scaling the project, given its successes.

Karna Bahadur, 74, one of the beneficiaries of the project in Samtse, says, “At this age, I can barely work a quarter of how much I used to when I was young, especially to collect fire wood. Thanks to the new oven, I don’t have to break my back carrying loads of firewood.”

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