Nate’s Journey: 29 May

I am amazed by how quickly one can descend from such high places. I am already back in Namche Bazar, even after taking a detour uphill to Khumjung. The drop down into the river valley, that I enjoyed the day we left Namche, was today a protracted climb. But I was impressed by the strong steady pace I was able to maintain at this lower elevation. Even if I am in a relative state of fitness, I have no illusions of greatness.

Seven AM today marked the start of the Base Camp to Namche marathon. So I was passed by hyperventilating people in spandex for most of the hike down from Pangboche. The first runner we saw was the incumbent winner of the last three years. At 17 minutes to 10AM he sprinted past us in Deboche, taking one breathe for every three strides. I could hear his deep steady breaths and counted his strides. That man is a different kind of athlete. It was 45 minutes before another runner (Nepali) was on his trail. I don’t know what the deal is, because when I eat dahl bot daily, my innards liquefy. No super-human ability there.

Anyway, my path today took me through Khumjung, so that Mingma could show me a biogas digester that had never panned out. This digester was built by Biogas Support Program Nepal. This is the Nepali branch of an international NGO that builds subsidized digesters in developing countries. They have done a lot of good work, especially in the warmer lowlands of Nepal, where folks raise cattle. The digester at Kumjung was sort of an experiment for them; their first chance to bring the technology to the higher, colder areas.

I didn’t get to see the actual digester, as the hotel it was built behind is now closed, during the summer lull of the tourist season. What I did see was a large stone building with locked doors surrounded by cow fields. The digester’s house was about 15m long by 4 or 5m wide. Mingma pointed out a contiguous room for storing the animal waste. This chamber also served for the digester’s mixing & feeding station. The larger part of the building encased the digester itself. I even spied what seemed to be the gas line out of the structure.

As we continued on our way, I questioned Mingma about what had happened there. The story, as he understood it, was based around the Hotel requesting the digester to supply their kitchen with biogas. BSP is need blind, and as mentioned earlier, they wanted to test their digesters at higher elevations. The digester was built, on private property, but the proposed substrate for it was intended to be the animal waste collected from the adjacent farms. The less affluent neighbors didn’t really see a benefit to doing extra work to help a prosperous hotel reduce their operating cost.

The farmers had nothing to gain and the hotel owners didn’t have much to lose. In the end BSP lost the chance to have a pilot biogas plant at 3780m and the hotel has a big useless structure behind their kitchen. For me, the locked doors of the digester held the same symbolic meaning as the gate to the hotel.  When humans create barriers between themselves, cooperation breaks down. This is an old story, and has been the end of many a well intentioned endeavor.

The failure of the biogas project at Khumjung was not the result of an engineering error. It was created by an oversight of the social dynamic, central to the intended operation of the digester. From what Mingma tells me, there was never even enough organic waste in the digester to start an active culture. I’d like to think that the lesson left locked behind those doors, is one the world has already forced me to learn. But every situation is different. And the assumption that humans behave rationally has been the downfall of many a scientific undertaking.

On my way out of the Khumbu, Mingma will show me a BSP digester that has been functioning without snags at Lukla (2840m) for some years now. I think back to his careful interviews with all the community members of Gorak Shep, the waste porters, the tea-house owners and even his discussions with the trekking sherpas who guide tourists to that remote place. The people there agree that a sustainable solution to the waste problem must be found. But more importantly, they want to cooperate to make that happen. I don’t think this project would be where it is now, and I’d doubt its ability to succeed, if Mingma were not working so hard to bring it forward. Not to take anything away from the years of work put in by all our project members, in America & Nepal  But without a native Sherpa speaker, helping to organize a local committee to take ownership, this project might end up a frigid hole in the ground.  If it ever even got that far.

I am not pessimistic about our project though. And it is good to be reminded, that the delicate web of human interaction requires careful attention. The Mt. Everest Biogas Project is not a club of technocrats, blindly investigating a story problem. We are a diverse group, listening to the needs and concerns of the Nepali people; sharing our skills and a common goal. Through direct involvement and organization of the local community, we hope to benefit the mountain and the people who call her home.