Wednesday, April 05, 2006

First step on the energy ladder

It’s so common that it’s hidden in plain sight. Despite statistics that you may read about India’s energy mix (and the ongoing nuclear debate that fills the papers here), the overwhelming majority of villagers across the country cook and heat their homes with dung cakes. They are ubiquitous up-country—I think that I took this picture somewhere outside of Jaipur, but it really could’ve been anywhere. Wood is in short supply nationwide and there are strict, if ill-enforced, laws against logging. Dung is abundant and relatively cheap. Few people are on the formal electricity grid (mostly coal-powered) or can afford kerosene or gas.

Rural ladies and children immediately collect the droppings of both buffalo and cattle and carry them in baskets on their heads them to a common area. They mix in straw or other agricultural scrap (by hand), press it into flat, plate-sized patties, and lay them out to sun-dry. After a couple of days, they stack them into any of a myriad of imaginative designs to serve as a storehouse throughout the year. Often (particularly with the monsoon coming in a few months), people will cover the entire dung cake structure with an outer coating/wall of dung to prevent the dried cakes inside from being damaged by rain. Excess cakes are packed up neatly on trucks for overland shipping, often to the massive slum areas and major streets around urban centers (like Delhi or Mumbai), as customers there have less access to dung pies or wood.

So, a plentiful fuel that everyone benefits from, right? Unfortunately, dung has extremely low caloric heat value and has the double negative of usually being burned in inefficient, low combustion-efficiency cookstoves in peoples’ huts. With incomplete combustion, people (read women and little kids spending time indoors) are exposed to very high levels of suspended particulates and a nasty cocktail of gas byproducts. All of which contributes to the facts that India has among the world’s highest asthma and tuberculosis disease burdens.

Material, especially barnyard or stable dung, often with discarded animal bedding, used to fertilize soil.
tr.v., -nured, -nur•ing, -nures.
To fertilize (soil) by applying material such as barnyard dung.
[From Middle English manuren, to cultivate land, from Anglo-Norman mainouverer, from Vulgar Latin *manūoperāre, to work with the hands : Latin manū, ablative of manus, hand + Latin operārī, to work.]

The word manure came from Middle English "manuren" meaning "to cultivate land," and initially from French "main-oeuvre" = "hand work" alluding to the work which involved manuring land.