Why is Biogas Not Being Widely Used in Humanitarian Relief?

Issue 59 of Boiling Point, titled Energy in Conflict and Emergency Relief, makes no significant reference to Biogas despite a growing household fuel crisis.

Given the trend towards a substantial increase in the frequency and magnitude of hydro-meteorological disasters linked to climate change and the corresponding increase in human displacement, it seems imperative that measures should be sought to ensure that transitional settlements are able to meet appropriate habitation standards. Finding a secure and sustainable energy supply is already a key concern.

In addition to the problem of human displacement is the increased risk of conflict as displaced populations move into regions where natural resources, such as water and firewood, are already scarce. An urgent concern with regard to the use of firewood as a household fuel in East African refugee camps are the frequent violent attacks on women who traditionally take responsibility for firewood procurement, a task that becomes increasingly dangerous as diminishing supplies must be sought further afield, often in hostile territory.

Where a refugee camp has no access to firewood the only available fuels are imported, expensive and therefore commit the displaced population to dependency on external aid. Importing fuel poses the additional problem of supply security, which may be impacted by regional conflict or an increase in market prices.

So what are the barriers that prevent the use of biogas in humanitarian aid? Here’s a method of producing cooking fuel that can use human waste as a feedstock solving sanitation problems. A potential energy cycle producing nutrient-rich fertilizer that could be used to enable local food production. Why don’t biogas digesters feature in the kit list of all the major humanitarian relief agencies… Is there simply a lack of information?
This is an excellent point - well put Sarah.
I've been working in humanitarian relief since 1990 with NGO, UN and now part time as humanitarian advisor with DFID in Pakistan. Since the 2010 floods I was in charge of DFID / UKAID's water and sanitation support, covering both emergency and early recovery water and sanitation and hygiene work (WASH). I was also covering shelter and housing. Now, this was the largest humanitarian disaster (in terms of number of people displaced / affected by a disaster) in memory. More than all the people displaced (survivors) of the the 2010 Haiti quake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami combined. It was also UK's largest humanitarian response to date.

So, I came across not one biogas project in either the emergency nor early recovery phases. Nor have I encountered them in the numerous countries I've worked over 5 continents in the last 20 years. So you're right - it is not known about nor adopted by the entire humanitarian community. Your question is why not.

Firstly, there is a lack of awareness and knowledge about biogas and renewables in general across the sector. Second, in the emergency phase (when people are in camps, etc.) there is little time and money to build anything more than emergency latrines. Third, in the early recovery phase (when people start to return home and rebuild their lives / infrastructure) there is the issue of acceptance. Many local people believe that there's a taboo with doing anything with human waste - though I seriously challenge this. I am sure people would prefer the generation of gas, free fertiliser than open sewers. In Pakistan, for example, some local NGOs (with DFID support I may add!) have been promoting biogas under longer term development programme, yet these aren't linked to the communities recovering from the 2010 or 2011 floods.

I am advising on the reconstruction of around 50,000 houses this year in southern Pakistan - all UKAID funded I am proud to say. But we cannot afford to extend this support for WASH or biogas projects. We will need other donors to get involved. What we can provide is the links to the very communities where it can be piloted, to the local and international organistions who are part of a reconstruction roundtable that we have set up, where these ideas and technologies can be implemented. I can provide links to landlords and private sector actors who would, I'm sure, be keen to give it a try. We have to get away from thinking that aid agenceis and donors are the only actors providing development support. Local private sector is a far larger sector and could have a lot to gain from it all. The benefits are multiple, of that there's no doubt.

Looking at other regions, biogas would seem to make a lot of sense, like the massive multi-year camps in Northern Kenya (currently receiving massive waves of refugees from Somalia), or those in CHAD from Sudan. These are water scarce denuded landscapes. Here, everyone cooks their food over open fires. Firewood is so scarce it's a major protection issue as women and girls are at risk when the look for it. Biogas plants would make sense here, but they can't be permanent concrete structures - landowners would never accept it. So we have to work to develop simple, plastic containers one tucked into the other, like the Ashen Awards winner in Kerala India designed.

The major aid organisations and the donors that support them need to see these technologies, understand how much they will cost, for them to be accepted and tried, on a pilot basis initially. The challenge is there and we will need support to get them implemented. The more local NGOs, private sector, Government and other local stakeholders that can get involved and informed, so there are local technicians to support the process.

It's a challenge but biogas is clearly a really appropriate technology for both emergency (in longer term camps) and early recovery / return. But we need to have viable, replicable technologies that offer good value for money! And we need to flesh out the added value of the slurry output for generating increased access to fresh food, shade, water retention, etc.

Cheers, Magnus
Do you think it is completely down to the state of the technology - which I agree even in the west is a very much emerging field of interest and investment - or do you think marketing, social and educational factors come to play here?

There are examples of small scale household digesters such as the ARTI design which have been created with urban environments in mind as a fuel alternative in developing countries as well as several national biogas programmes many supported by the likes of SNV in Nepal, Cambodia etc. I'm interested to know how wide spread these technologies are and how easy it has been to perpetrate them into the household energy market? Does anyone have any information on this?

I am also aware that capital cost has repeatedly been reported as a major inhibiting factor to the uptake of anaerobic digesters but perhaps much is down to the risks and also that larger scale community digesters require a certain amount of knowledge and expertise for construction, maintenance and repair which particularly in an emergency setting may not be readily available? Perhaps there are also marketing issues as well involved as it is a completely foreign technology in many countries. I don't know if anyone has any experience in this area but am aware SNV have been running a very successful biogas programme as are others who may be able to shed some light on the technology transfer needs in order to make it successful in an emergency setting?
Hi Miriam and all the others,

Thank you for this topic. Well, as a biogas-to-be expert I can say a couple of things:

- Yes, it would be great if Biogas can be used in humanitarian relief. I see lots of opportunities for the technology as it can improve hygienic conditions almost right away.
- There are several types of digesters around. The most widely used is the Chines Dome type, a digester made from concrete. This one is a bit difficult to use in a crisis situation. Currently, partners of mine are busy with tests on biogas balloons, made from fiber mixed with polyethyleen to use as biogas chamber. for that one, you only need to dig a hole, put the ballon in there and let the process start.
- Then, in crisis environment, you need something where you can bring the gas to. I suppose piping gets difficult, so you need something else for that....but what?
- Now, if you want to make produce electricity from the gas directly, you'll either use it to generate steam or you'll need to purify and compress it to feed to any gas generator.
- The slurry can be used indeed to compost and use as fertilizer. However, it is a fluid, so difficult to handle and composting takes up to 2 months. How to handle that in a disastrous environment?

What I think why it is not adopted, is because concrete digesters don't make sense and those balloons are not yet very wide-spread. Furthermore, you'll need some pack-it-in-a-box system including toilets, piping, generators, stoves, purifiers, composting systems etc. That is a complex thing. Every addition to that system has a risk of brakedown, so I can imagine the total risk for 100% operation is a bit high.

Then something totally different..Human faeces doesn't generate enough gas to cook on for that person itself. It generates 0.04 m3 gas a day.. which I wonder is enough to cook on, since the calorific value is 3 times lower than butane propane...Maybe some chemists around here know the answer?

Then the household electricty issues. Sure, everyone would love to have electricty....but how much? I guess it is not that much...Maybe for some medical post it would be great for using with their fridges, but if all the electricity is used for charging cellphones, then solar power is way better and more efficient. Once more, I am not an disaster and human relief expert, rather a technical electronics guy, but I am not sure if creating an electricity grid apart from the existent infrastructures is a great option for human relief. If temporary, yes it can be possible if there is demand, but even then...I have my doubts.

However, I am willing to think this through as there must be a way of conquering this. It woudl be great if you can enhance biogas to prevent Cholera outbreaks...which is the first thing you'll hear? How about a portable UASB (biogas water filtering system) reactor for those places?
United Kingdom
Hello Bernard, Miriam and others,

Having reviewed recent projects for Ashden (www.ashden.org), I can
offer some comments.

Biogas is seen as a very successful technology in specific situations,
i.e. rural households with access to animal dung. The masonry dome
digester has been made in the millions in China, India, Nepal and
elsewhere, so it has "caught on" in that sense. However, a masonry
(brick and/or concrete) structure is "permanent" and not suitable for
refugee camps.

Biogas can be used directly in an engine; it does not need to be
cleaned and compressed (unless it needs to be transported). However,
an engine needs large amounts of gas, so large numbers of animals or
people are required and a large size biogas system is needed.

Large scale masonry systems are being made to process human sewage on
a large scale (see the report on the KIST project in Rwanda on the
Ashden site). The plants could run engines (although they are mainly
used for cooking fuel). Similar plants, used to process food waste
from markets in India, are used to generate electricity for local
lighting (see Biotech Ltd on the Ashden web site).

There are portable systems around, mainly used for food waste as a
feed material. The ARTI system is one, although not the
best (they did win an Ashden Award in 2006, see report). Flexible
bag digesters are being made, but are not catching on. Low cost
plastics do not last and better quality plastic systems are proving
expensive compared to masonry systems.

The technology has been proven. However, there is a need for a
system-in-a-box that could be deployed in a disaster situation. It
does need to be developed. However, as Magnus Wolfe Murrey (who has
contributed to this discussion) has pointed out, aid workers tend to
offer the technologies that they know, such as flush toilets and
septic tanks, even if they are inappropriate to the situation.

I am working with a group looking at waterless toilets. There is the
potential for a system in a box, but there is much more work (and
finance) required before it could be made available.

Best regards,

Dr David Fulford CEnv MEI, 15, Brandon Ave, Woodley, Reading RG5 4PU
d.j.fulford at btinternet.com, Tel: +44(0)118 326 9779 Mob: +44(0)7746 806401
Kingdom Bioenergy Ltd, www.kingdombio.com, davidf at kindombio.com
Skype Identity: djfulford
Hi David,

I am very much willing to help woth the design of such a portable =
system. Since I am young, creative but also have a very wide working =
experience and are an excellent networker I am sure we can work =

Is it an idea to open up a topic or subforum? I am living in Holland but =
since I am studying very flexbile with time and travelling, so a trip to =
somewhere as the UK is fine with me.

Kind regards,

Bernard Wesseling

Ps, the flush less toilets is something I will need desperately as soon =
as it is available).
United Kingdom
Hello Bernard,

There could be some interesting opportunities that I could offer, if
you are keen. To seem some background on the work in which I am
involved, look at Ashden (www.ashden.org) for which I have a
consulting role. I am visiting Peru on their behalf, going tomorrow,
but returning next Wednesday. My own work through Kingdom Bioenergy
Ltd is presented on my website (www.kingdombio.com).

At present, I am working with an India colleague from SKG Sangha (see
Ashden website under biogas in India) to set up an International
Foundation to encourage the use of renewable technologies, especially
biogas in various places in the world.

I am meeting up with Vidya Sagar and LooWatt (www.loowatt.com/) on 16
February in London. If you want to find out more, you might be able to
join us for a visit to the demonstration toilet. You would need to
e-mail Iain (to whom this e-mail is copied) and make arrangements to
join us after our meetings for the visit. Being away in Peru, it might
be difficult for me to get e-mails.

Another person to contact is Magnus Wolfe Murrey (magnuswm@gmail.com)
who is looking to set up biogas systems for refugee camps. He is a
contract worker for the UK DfID and has been administering UK aid to
the people affected by the two floods in Pakistan (2010 and 2011. He
runs courses for volunteers at his house in Portugal. I have been
advising him on building his own biogas plant.

Another Indian colleague has tested various ideas for portable biogas
systems. We are also aiming to set up a research centre near Bangalore
to develop new ideas. This would be a very productive area to

Best regards,

Dr David Fulford CEnv MEI, 15, Brandon Ave, Woodley, Reading RG5 4PU
d.j.fulford at btinternet.com, Tel: +44(0)118 326 9779 Mob: +44(0)7746 806401
Kingdom Bioenergy Ltd, www.kingdombio.com, davidf at kindombio.com
Skype Identity: djfulford
Hi everyone

Thanks for the interesting thread, and well thought-through responses. We have been thinking about this application over the past couple of years, and applying the prefabricated digester we've developed for this application. The digester itself is based on fixed-dome concepts, and 5 of these can fit into a 40' container. A pit-type toilet can be installed directly over the large inlet - we've trialled the concept in rural areas of South Africa with good success. in a container, 5 toilets could be installed above the roof and connected via cut-outs in the roof. The container itself could be installed above ground, with a walk-up to the toilets, or in the ground with the toilets at ground level. Or something inbetween ...

The website for the digester is www.biogaspro.com, where there are various downloads and technical info. In short, though, a single unit can take up 1000 litres of w/water, stores 950 litres biogas and generates a max pressure of 7 kPa. I figure that one could connect 150 toilet users to each unit, or 750 per container, for low-flush or no-flush designs (wastewater from the immediate area could be piped separately to the digesters if a no-flush approach was adopted). Food scraps can also be added - we promote co-digestion in any event, and would ensure greater gas production and a cleaner environment.

Feel free to contact me if you need any further info.


Greg Austin
greg at biogaspro.com
I agree with what Dr Fulford has suggested. I am managing a household biogas project in Pakistan http://rspn.org/our_projects/pdbp1.html (which Mr Magnus Murray mentioned as well) which aims to establish the biogas sector in Pakistan.

Through my experience i feel the main reasons that inhibit biogas plants from being used for humanitarian relief are:

Space Issue - Although the slurry thats produced is excellent fertilizer, with the village pattern that exists in Pakistan many households houses are a fair distance away from their fields and transporting the semi-liquid slurry to the fields can be quite an issue.

Permanent structure not suitable for refugee camps as they might move back to older/other settlements.

Cultural issues of using human waste for cooking - persons in need of humanitarian relief like the flood affectees in Pakistan have usually lost their animals

Apart from being for humanitarian relief, one main reason why biogas technology has failed to fully deliver (China has 32 MM plants - about 60% functional) is the lack of ownership of a technology when its provided for free. The reason is that although its a highly beneficial technology (health, environment, savings in money and time) it still requires a level of effort to continuously run a biogas plant (ensure proper feeding, managing the slurry) and without paying for the technology households tend not buy-in to the technology and hence stop making the effort of running it after a while. That could be a big problem, from the sustainability viewpoint of providing biogas plants for humanitarian relief.

That being said, the Punjab govt has incorporated biogas plants into model villages developed for the flood affected people. Time will tell if the modalities adopted will be successful.
Hi David,

I am very much willing to help woth the design of such a portable =

Is it an idea to open up a topic or subforum?
Kind regards,

Bernard Wesseling
Hi everyone,

I'm no expert in biogas per se.... but it seems to me that most of the
reasons for failure that came up so far can be related to the weakness that
all aid funded interventions share. What solutions are proposed, for whom,
to solve whose problems... lack of interest in keeping a system working
speak for itself... the value of such system is not recognized nor
appreciated (often times).

To overcome these problems I think it is crucial to understand that
"energy" is not conventional aid business. Energy is opportunity. You
cannot make money by distributing medicines or food. Let that be the job of
aid workers. Energy practitioners have another and very different role to
play. Energy brings economic opportunity. How? It's for us all to find out
via experimenting different business models, services, value chains... but
one thing we should stop doing is to dump our solutions over the heads of
people and be heartbroken when they don't appreciate them or find them hard
or expensive to maintain.

Let's say that we can identify in refugee camps an opportunity to produce
biogas. Is this biogas going to be a cheaper alternative than any other
energy source identifiable in the area? Yes, go ahead. No, forget it. Let's
say yes.
Probably the optimal way to do that would be through a centralized plant
rather than thousands of household sized ones. Probably one would want a
business oriented entity to take care of the correct functioning of the
plant, selling gas to consumers (gas would have to be better than any other
cooking fuel available in the camp in price and performance), coordinating
with stoves sellers etc.
We need to understand that the produced gas is a resource with its own
intrinsic value. Camp residents are not interested? They are entitled not
to be.
Sell it to energy requiring activities taking place in the neighbourhoods,
there are none? (I don't believe it, but let's pretend) Bottle it and sell
it elsewhere, use it for transport, whatever.

If you look at the "camp system" from above as a box with inputs and
outputs. It needs various resources in input to function (food, water,
energy) any output would be the result of internal economic activity, if
any. The production of energy from within should reduce the required input
of energy into the box from outside, one way or another (depending on the

The donor's contribution should be in setting up the biogas producing plant
(with a loan), enabling the design of the value chain and leaving it to its
destiny with blessings. The result should be a decreased need for energy in
input and therefore a saving for the donor, assuming that he's the one
paying for the overall energy requirement.

See how easy it is from my desk not really knowing much of what's going on
in the field... now you guys with experience can tell me what are the
weaknesses in my reasoning.

Many thanks
Great to see these inputs from everyone (welcome Sajjad from RSPN Pakistan!)

Greg - really interesting about your pre-fabricated biogas plants - what about price? I imagine they will be too costly to import, etc. Remember: cost / service or value-for-money is really important to DFID / any donor, and rightly so. Tax payers deserve donors that are really careful about the use of their money - it should reach as many people as possible. And if possible provide as many benefits with one investment (which biogas would do) but which almost all aid organisations aren't aware of, yet...

Rafaella and others raise interesting points about business opportunities and the management of these resources. And yes, I have also heard that many cultures would not accept cooking on gas produced by human waste. But if there was an economic opportunity to be had there would certainly be takers.

Can I bring us back to the context here: a disaster strikes and people are displaced, and then they return home - if they can. So there are two quite different phases - let's call them "humanitarian relief" and "early recovery" (referring to the time when people return home and start to rebuild their homes/ communities).

So, first, humanitarian relief: assumes people living in camps for either a short time or prolounged (years). If these are long term camps - like in Northern Kenya (20+ years) then there could be opportunities for biogas type infrastructure. But most camps are short term (< one year), so it's unlikely to be attractive - unless it could be competitive in price to normal latrines - which cost around $70/unit to install. In places like Haiti the slurry had to be removed by truck and sent somewhere far away, which is a high cost. So this cost could be taken into account.
In some cases, such as IDP camps in Darfur (N.Sudan) and refugee camps in Chad, there are serious protection problems with the supply of firewood (e.g. gender based violence and sometimes murder). It may be that a short term non-permanent biogas plant could be accepted by land-owners of the camp area.

We really need to have a simple and affordable technology to be able to introduce and pilot.

Next - the "early recovery" phase. So people have returned, their homes and community is damaged or destroyed. This is the best time to incorporate any new infrastructure and I would imagine that the classic "Chinese model" as someone here referred to is the simplest / cheapest? Not sure. A very good point made is that food and other agricultural wastes can be added to increase gas production.

I would like to know how we can take this forward. I will be holding a workshop in Pakistan in April this year dealing with sanitation options after disaster. I could include a presentation on biogas for early recovery (and even humanitarian relief)
but the more detail I could have in terms of designs, cost, local production, training requirement etc. the better. Sajjad, it will be good to collaborate with you / RSPN on this given your previous experience with biogas in Pakistan.

Hello All,

Thank you for your very interesting discussion on this topic. Your inputs have highlighted some key issues such as the often complex nature of biogas technology, initial infrastructure costs, available feedstock, community acceptance and the on-going management of a system. Benefits have also been discussed such as the potential for a sustainable energy system using human waste as a primary feedstock and yielding nutrient rich fertilizer. Such a system could support local agriculture and possibly afforestation in the case of longer term settlements.

It seems that more information is needed with regard to the types of system that might be appropriate to a transitional settlement or refugee camp. Biogas systems can be scaled to suit the needs of a community or, on the other hand, small-scale digesters can be self built to serve the cooking needs of a single household.

Case studies are also needed giving a picture of how systems have been implemented and by whom. There are a growing number of biogas programs around the world and a wealth of information is becoming available to support the growth and development of future programs.

To help address the need for more information HEDON will soon be launching a Digester Database that will be searchable by type, application, availability, feedstock and geographic region. Notice of the launch will be posted on this SIG and your feedback will, of course, be welcome.

Warm regards,
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