Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Amazing Race 18, Episode 6

Kolkata/Calcutta (India) - Varanasi (India)

The key challenge for the teams in The Amazing Race 18 this week in Varanasi was mixing and shaping water buffalo manure and straw into patties to be used as cooking fuel, and slapping them up in rows on the wall of a house to dry. Then they have to start a fire of dried buffalo chips in an open hearth to boil milk.

That's a common task throughout South Asia and parts of Africa, although not one tourists usually undertake. First-time visitors don't necessarily realize what they are, but rows of drying cow patties, marked with palm prints (often obviously child-sized ones, since making them is typically work for women and children), drying in the sun, are a ubiquitous feature of the walls poor people's homes in the subcontinent.

Many of the racers are grossed out by having to handle manure, even though unlike any poor Indian doing this work they are provided with rubber gloves. Buffalo or cow manure ranks pretty low among the health risks of travel in India. Human excrement in the streets, often contaminating both drinking water and food, is a much more serious hazard.

The use of manure for cooking fuel isn't likely to cause problems for the racers or most other tourists or short-term visitors. Wealthier Indians and most tourist facilities use alternative fuels (kerosene, propane, charcoal, etc.), if only for the aesthetic reason of avoiding the smell of dung smoke that permeates and lingers in clothing and other materials. It's similar to the historical situation in Ireland and Scotland, where only peasants or rural people who couldn't afford or didn't have access to any other fuel burned peat. Peat has a similar heat content to cow patties, and produces a similarly smoldering, smoky fire.

But over the long term, especially for poor people with access to no other fuel, there are serious long-term health and environmental problems with the use of manure for cooking fuel.

Burning manure for fuel wastes its potential value as fertilizer, and depletes the soil. Sustainable farming or even urban gardening requires returning the nutrients in manure to the land where the cows, buffalo, camels, etc. have grazed. In general, dung is used as fuel only in deforested, overgrazed, and/or overpopulated areas where wood or charcoal are no longer available for cooking fuel, or not in sufficient quantities. Grazing livestock on deforested land, and burning their dung, is the next step in the process of desertification of that land.

Even more than peat or soft coal (formerly the standard cooking fuel in China), burning dung produces enormous amounts of lung-damaging soot. This problem is multiplied by the lack of ventilation in poor people's homes where dung is most often burned. Those who have space to do so cook outdoors, when it isn't raining, but not everyone has space for that in the crowded communities of hutments where most of the people in big Indian cities like Varanasi live. Indoor air pollution, mainly caused by dung smoke, is one of the largest causes of illness and death for poor people in India after contaminated drinking water.

You might take this for one of those intractable problems that rich Indians ignore, like the omnipresent beggars, and tell foreigners that they too should simply get used to rather than trying to do anything about. What else but dung can poor people afford to cook with? Dung from the sacred cows wandering the streets is "free", so why not let poor people make what use they can of it? Dung costs a family only the labor of the children who follow cows and buffalo to collect their droppings, and once mixed and dried can even be sold to other poor people for a small supplemental income.

Surprisingly, even simple stoves that can be made from locally available materials (sheet metal from tin cans -- not free in a scavenger's market, but affordable to poor people) can produce a dramatically hotter, cleaner, and more efficient fire that uses less dung (or other fuel) to cook the same amount of food, while producing much less smoke with fewer particulates in it.

Open dung cooking fires, like the ones the racers have to build, have been the norm for as long as anyone can remember in most of the world. But once people see how much a simple stove can reduce the amount of dung they need to collect, it's not hard to persuade them to abandon their smoky tradition.

A better way to burn dung for cooking may seem like a prosaic use of technology, but it's one with the potential to make a significant impact in people's quality of life at minimal cost and with no need for imported or exotic materials. Those trying to spread this message include Indian Gandhians (appropriate technology was actually a major part of Gandhi's constructive program of "Sarvodaya") and foreign activists like my friend the late Fred Moore, whose extended peace walks through India and Central America combined evangelism for nonviolence with evangelism for better cookstoves.

So while it may be both a characteristic and a "colorful" feature of both traditional and contemporary local life, and may have provided an opportunity to provoke culture shock in some of the more squeamish urbanites among the racers, cooking over an open fire of cow patties is something that many appropriate technology educators are working hard to eliminate from Indian life.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 10 April 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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