This articles is based on the publication Biogas Digest Volume I: Biogas Basics, published by GTZ.
Many religions have very strict laws with regard to cleanliness, especially in connection with human and, to a lesser extent, animal excrement. The suppression or bypassing of such laws is always a mistake. Every new case of illness would invariably be ascribed to the transgression of religious laws. It would be of little importance how much such an illness may actually have to do with the production of biogas.
Implementation strategies should be based on cooperation with appropriate domestic institutions that are looked upon as benign and "clean". The positions and attitudes of such institutions must always be clarified in advance, since it is not their general posture that is of decisive importance, but rather their attitudes with respect to the transgression of religious doctrine. For example: the socio-cultural expectation is that illness will result from the handling of human or animal excrement. Since, however, hospitals are generally accepted as the absolute "experts" in matters of health (or lack of it), it could have a beneficial model effect on the popularization of biogas technology to see that their local hospital or dispensary is operating a biogas system.
On the other hand, hospitals are also regarded as secular institutions; one accepts their services as a 'necessary evil' without affording them a social rank. Seen in that light, religious taboos cannot be overcome by way of the hospital's example. At best, the reaction would amount to: "They can get away with it. They have special defense powers. But we don't!".
Many socio-cultural taboos, though rooted in ancient religious beliefs, have gradually become altered by way of missionary activities and the extenuation of religious interests to "generally applicable" taboos, which are frequently more difficult to handle than "pure" religious taboos, since no priest or minister is able to exert any influence. The only way to overcome taboos is by way of example. Highly respected members of the community, approved educational institutions, etc. may be able to make inroads in a model function. Here, too, a preliminary study of the envisioned mediator is imperative. The question of individual acceptance must be clarified in advance. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that someone who is considered highly acceptable in a certain field or function, e.g. politics, will enjoy the same high standing in a different context, e.g. hygiene.
Of equal importance is the effective investigation of existing interrelations between, and relative influence of, the various taboos. For example, the socio-cultural cross-linkage between social behavior and illness must be expected to appear illogical to a Western implementer. Such associations must be heeded if the strategy being applied is to meet with success in generating acceptance for biogas and in instigating a (partial) breach of taboos. Often enough, the breakthrough may be easier to achieve indirectly (by way of the cross-links) than directly. In the Pacific region, for example, human feces were traditionally "disposed of" by pigs. This was a matter of general practice and no one considered it repulsive. The potential solution: a "three-in-one" system in which the human excrement "pass through" the pigs, so to speak, by being routed underneath the pigpen on their way to the digester. No one "sees" what actually takes place, or more precisely, what does not take place.
Defense Mechanisms Against the Use of Human Excrements as Fertilizer
In practical terms, this subject could be viewed as a subgroup of the socio-cultural taboos, the main distinction being that the use of night-soil for the production of biogas is regarded as acceptable, but the use of the digested sludge as fertilizer is not. This stance is particularly well-entrenched in regions where the use of fertilizers is relatively new, and mineral fertilizers have been introduced as a "clean" product, i.e. in regions where shifting cultivation is traditional.
It is unusual in such regions to find that the arguments against the use of manure have been generated, or at least amplified, by hygiene propaganda. In the Pacific Basin, for example, a region in which few epidemics have been known so far, but were belatedly infused by way of acculturation. A potential solution would be to conduct demonstrations in cooperation with institutions known for - and viewed as credible because of - their close involvement with matters of hygiene.
Irregular Attendance and Maintenance of Biogas Systems
This is a frequent problem in the tropics, where the climate dictates no particular sequence of agricultural activities. Applied to biogas systems, the connection between a process breakdown and irregular charging is not immediately recognizable, because there is a substantial time lag between the owner's forgetting to feed substrate into the system and the eventual, resultant decrease in gas production. Similarly, once the biogas system has stopped producing, it will take up to about 10 days of regular charging to get the gas production back to normal levels. Once again, the connection is blurred. The only possible solution would be to provide long-term intensive training aimed at instilling an appreciation for the need to ensure that the system is charged on a regular basis.
This problem stands in close relation to the ethical barriers, socio-cultural taboos, defense mechanisms and the lack of regularity in the attandance of biogas systems. Insufficient, untimely or otherwise improper fertilizing may be the result of a lack of familiarization with regard to the work involved, the type of fertilizer being used or the necessity of methodical regularity. To the extent that neither ethical barriers nor socio-cultural taboos are involved, the only workable approach is to provide intensive training for the owner-operators.