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[LONDON] A scheme that harnesses biogas to improve the quality of life for Vietnamese smallholders is one of six projects recognised in an international awards ceremony.

Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) teamed up with the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV) in 2003 to create a countrywide biogas programme that takes Vietnam's human and animal waste and turns it into a source of clean, renewable energy.

The manure is placed in an airtight tank where it is broken down by bacteria to produce biogas — a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide. More than 78,000 biogas digesters have been installed so far, benefiting almost 400,000 people and saving nearly 167,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise have been released from burning fossil fuels.

The project was awarded a prize of £20,000 (around US$30,000) at the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy in the United Kingdom last week (1 July).

"More than ten million smallholder farmers in Vietnam live in very unhygienic conditions that pollute the rivers and groundwater," Tom Derksen, country director of SNV Vietnam, told SciDev.Net. "At the same time, gas prices are rising and cooking on coal and wood [causes] a lot of health problems.

"The biogas ... also has this great bio-slurry as a side product that is an organic fertiliser," he said.

Each household system costs around US$550, and with savings from gas and coal it pays for itself within 2.5 years, according to Nguyen Thi Minh, MARD project coordinator. The government provides a 12 per cent subsidy, she said, and there are plans for the Asian Development Bank to help banks provide 'biogas loans' for the poorest farmers.

The project started in Nepal, where 200,000 units have been built. Vietnam's target is 168,000 digesters by the end of 2012, with plans to expand to seven more Asian and six African countries. Thi Minh told SciDev.Net that pilot projects are in place in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos.

The project — one of the largest of its kind in the world — has also provided training for some 1,200 small businesses to build biogas digesters, with an additional 75,000 built so far. 

"We've given them technical training and business training, and they are now making a living out of building biogas digesters," Derksen said.

Making technical biogas training available countrywide is the next step, he said. "There is a lot of scope for capacity-building ... and we've helped the government to develop appropriate policies for this."

Other winning projects incorporated the use of solar- and hydro-power. The overall 'Gold Award' winner was D Light Design, which has provided over 220,000 solar lanterns in more than 30 countries via a network of rural businesses.