Turning Waste to Energy
By Saydrah Mallak
Today we had a chance to visit some farms in a rural village outside Can Tho. This is the most fertile part of the Mekong Delta. It was remarkable to see how much each household could produce in their small backyard. In just one hectare, we saw pigs, chicken, fish, and an abundance of vegetables and fruit trees.
Living in Missoula, Montana, as a student I often wish I could live more sustainably. I try to by using my bicycle to commute, composting and gardening, raising chickens and recycling. I do this because it’s better for the environment, contributes to long-term health benefits, and saves money. Here in Vietnam the farmer’s have created a system that promotes production while also protecting the environment. The farmers use pig manure for plant and fish food, while leftover vegetables are fed to livestock and fish.
This system is called VACB, which, in Vietnamese, stands for garden, aquaculture, pigs, and biogas. Manure produced by the pigs is channeled into a big bag, called the digester, where it’s turned into biogas. The biogas is funneled to the house to run the stove for cooking and provides electricity. After the manure is decomposed, the left over solids are used to fertilize the garden, while the left over liquid is emptied into the fishpond where it serves two purposes. The first is to promote the growth of essential phytoplankton to feed the new fish the farmer is growing. The second is for growing plants in the pond that can be used for biogas.
The advantage of this system is that it helps to increase the farmer’s production, supporting their livelihood, while also protecting the environment. The energy source is renewable, reducing the use gas for cooking and lighting, and making life easier for women, requiring less labor for firewood collection.
We learn about an interesting funding mechanism for these projects by Dr. Chiem. Materials for this system cost $100 to get started. This might sound inexpensive to some, but in a country where the average income is around $2,000 per year, this upfront cost is not insignificant. Funding comes from the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), who works in partnership with Can Tho University (CTU). It is part of a Clean Mechanism Development project, one that transfers wealth from the developed world to developing countries to invest in emissions-reduction projects. By capturing the methane from animal waste and using it for cooking and lighting, each biogas container can reduce about three tons of carbon dioxide a year (which, interestingly, is about what each of us emitted traveling round-trip to study in Vietnam).
We meet the farmer in village, Le Hoang Thang, who takes responsibility to train people in how to maintain and fix the systems. I have so much respect for him and for Dr. Chiem. Their passion for protecting the environment is inspiring and gives me hope. Simple strategies like this can make a difference in terms of improving farmers’ livelihoods and also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With greater investment from the developed world, carbon credits could pay for even more biogas digesters for farmers across the Mekong Delta and around the world.
In a few days we will travel to Ca Mau and meet the family of our teaching assistants, Dua and Dinh, whose family grows shrimp, fish, fruit, ducks, and crocodiles. Dinh is studying environmental engineering at Can Tho University and tells me she would like to see if her family might benefit from a biogas digester. She wants to be like Le Hoang Thang, who trains others in the village. We fantasize about if maybe the University of Montana could invest some of its carbon offset money to help support a pilot project. I am inspired and touched by Dinh’s passion, and while I don’t know what it would take to make this possible, I’m keen to try.