Shaanxi Mothers win top environmental award

LONDON, June 16 — A voluntary group of mothers from Shaanxi Province have picked up second prize in the international Ashden awards, which celebrate environmental excellence.

Bionic women

Wang Mingyin is a determined lady. Her Shaanxi Mothers organisation has overseen the fitting of almost 1,300 biogas systems in farming households across China’s fuel-stricken Shaanxi Province – the project yesterday took a prize in the prestigious international Ashden environmental awards to great praise from the judges and patron HRH Prince Charles.

Methane gas makes cooking easier

Methane gas makes cooking easier

Shaanxi Mothers’ biogas systems replace traditional wood burning for cooking, liberating thousands of families from the tiresome time-consuming task of collecting wood, breaking twigs, and burning low-energy sooty branches. It also contributes to China’s reforestation efforts.

Wood burning – on the scale of the 768 million Chinese rural population – is extremely wasteful and environmentally damaging. Burning wood is a very inefficient way to heat water, and it is exactly this “source” use of fuels such as wood the Chinese government aims to stamp out as it grows.

But for the largely rural residents of Shaanxi, finding alternatives to wood and coal for cooking fuel is becoming an increasingly urgent task. Like many parts of China, it has suffered from decades of deforestation and soil erosion. The government is now addressing this by placing severe restrictions on tree felling and wood cutting, and undertaking a reforestation programme which is changing the face of the landscape. The terraced hillsides are now out of bounds to crops, except a limited ratio of fruit trees. Instead, farmers are paid to plant (and tend) trees; everywhere you look, there are saplings and small trees coming up.

In this context moving from wood or coal to biogas for cooking is not only essential from an environmental viewpoint, it also helps replace income from banned hillside crop farming.

Keeping pigs in order to produce biogas helps replace hillside crop growing as a source of income – many farmers in Shaanxi keep pigs in pigsties, and their waste, combined with human waste from an adjacent toilet, forms the basis of the biogas.

The pigsties are specially built as part of a structure which includes the biogas pit. Most systems provide enough gas for a two-ring cooker and a single light. The waste from pigs or people is simply sluiced down directly into the ‘input’ for the biogas pit; warm water is then added, and due to a process of anaerobic digestion, biogas is produced which is then piped into the home for cooking. An added benefit is the remaining slurry which acts as an effective fertiliser, allowing farmers to cut down massively on chemical fertilisers.

The price of a system varies from around US$380 to US$560 (RMB2,970 to RMB4,380). Users only pay a third of the cost, the rest funded by central or local government (about one third) and the Shaanxi Mothers the remaining third.

For their part, the Shaanxi Mothers raise their funds through local activities and from a range of nongovernmental organisations, and government bodies (notably the German Embassy). They also receive donations from from WuFang XiaoWei, Friends of Earth Hong Kong.

Families using the system can cut coal or wood, fertiliser and electricity bills by around RMB1,000 per year. And an increase in food production as a result of the slurry fertiliser can also increase income by up to RMB2,000. If you add these together, the biogas plant pays for itself in around 18 months.

“It’s better than I imagined it would be,” says one user, Mr Hong Fan. “I’ve saved lots of money as I don’t have to buy wood or coal – I save at least 800 yuan a year on that. And now I can get supper cooked from start to finish in half an hour. So I’ve time to make shoes for the kids, to make clothes, grow vegetables – and so I save even more money.”

The 2006 Ashden Awards, a leading green energy award scheme, reward outstanding and innovative projects which tackle climate change and improve quality of life through the generation of sustainable energy at a local level. Shaanxi Mothers won second prize, alongside projects in Cambodia, India and southern Africa.

Ashden’s patron, Prince Charles, said through a statement he hoped “that the practical, simple and economical solutions demonstrated by each of these projects would aid the adoption of these technologies on a larger scale.”

Wang Mingying founded Shaanxi Mothers Environmental Protection Volunteer Association in 1997: she was concerned about the way in which forest loss and pollution were ruining the land in which she grew up. Initially the group had to overcome widespread opposition and scepticism, even from Wang’s own husband, to raise money for tree planting schemes by collecting
recyclable rubbish. Her husband now fully supports Wang’s efforts to promote the use of biogas in the region.

The association has grown rapidly. It has close links to the Shaanxi provincial women’s federation (SWF), of which the Mothers are a member, but they essentially operate as an independent organistion. Since 1997 a million people have taken part in the ‘Hand in Hand’ project run jointly by the Mothers and the Shaanxi provincial women’s federation.

But a greater triumph for the people of Shaanxi’s is the liberating from the cumbersome process of gatering, breaking and burning low-grade wood.

“Look at this [shows callous on finger] – that’s what I got from having to snap twigs for kindling all those years… I used to weep with the smoke. Now I have so much spare time – I love [traditional Chinese] opera, and I’ve even started singing again!” said Yuan Congren.

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