Academic journal article Human Organization

Socioeconomic Barriers to Biogas Development in Rural Southwest China: An Ethnographic Case Study

Academic journal article Human Organization

Socioeconomic Barriers to Biogas Development in Rural Southwest China: An Ethnographic Case Study

Article excerpt

The household biogas system has a potential to offer significant health, economic, and environmental benefits to millions of households in rural China. In 1997, the Chinese legislature declared biogas as a national energy development agenda, and the Chinese government subsidies for biogas have been increasing since then. Nevertheless, only about 12 percent of rural households utilize biogas. In poor regions, the figure is much lower. At present, biogas counts for merely 1 percent of energy consumption in rural China. In this article, drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork, I examine the socioeconomic barriers to biogas development in rural Southwest China. My central question is: what are the factors that prevent farmers from utilizing biogas and how can development agencies help remove such barriers? Anchored in anthropological insights on technology adoption, this study first identifies main barriers to biogas adoption through a villagewide survey. Then, I examine such barriers in their socioeconomic contexts by participant observation and interviews with current biogas users in the village. The article concludes with recommendations for policy makers and agencies involved in biogas development in rural China and elsewhere in the world.

Key words: biogas, development, technology adoption, China

Introduction

In rural Southwest China, a household biogas system refers to a small-scale energy management scheme that converts animal wastes and farm residues into biogas, an inflammable gas mainly composed of methane (CH4). Typically, the system includes an 8-10 m3 concrete anaerobic digester, a latrine, and a pig house. Human and animal wastes and shredded straw and stalks flow into the digester for fermentation. The biogas, generated in the process, provides the household with a fuel for cooking, lighting, and heating. The sludge, after being discharged from the digestion compartment into the displacement tank, is collected as a fertilizer for the fields. The system is known as the "three-in-one" model, or the "pig-biogas-grain" cycle (see Figure 1).

Research suggests that biogas has a potential to offer significant health, economic, and environmental benefits to most rural households (Abraham, Ramachandran, and Ramalingam 2007; Balsam and Ryan 2006; Brown 2006; Gan and Yu 2008; Mueller 2007; Shi 2002; Van Dyne and Weber 1994; Wang and Li 2005). By and large, these benefits may be categorized into three kinds.

First, the biogas system can help improve rural people's health. In rural China today, an open fire is commonly used for cooking and heating inside the residence. About 80 percent of the fuel consumed by rural households is in the form of biomass (e.g., firewood, straw, and stalks), and nearly 10 percent is coal. The burning of biomass and coal is the dominant source of indoor air pollution (smoke) and contributes significantly to the total burden of ill health in mral China (Zhang and Smith 2007). Biogas is a reasonably clean burning fuel and has much lower emissions of major toxic pollutants than kerosene, wood, roots, crop residues, and dung (Demirbas and Balat 2006; Smith 2006). In a comparative study of 600 biogas users and 600 non-users in mral Nepal, researchers found that biogas helped reduce or alleviate diseases such as eye infection, burning, lung problems, respiratory problems, and asthma (Acharya, Bajgain, and Subedi 2005). Based on their research in Liaoning and Yunnan, Byrne et al. (2004) confirmed that biogas had the same potential to help improve indoor air quality and reduce the prevalence of health problems among the rural Chinese, especially respiratory and eye problems, associated with firewood burning.

Also, biogas can mitigate fecal-bome and parasitic diseases that have been widespread in China for many centuries (Li 2006a, 2006b, 2006c). Despite the advancement of medical and agricultural technologies, in rural China today, rates of fecal-borne and parasitic diseases remain high (Ministry of Health 2005). …

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