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Yasmeen Barkat with her cattle. Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Karachi’s green buses to be powered by dung

A plan for a natural gas-powered bus transport system may bring unexpected benefits to a cattle colony.
Published Jan 23, 2020 02:25pm

Not in their wildest dreams did the residents of Karachi’s Cattle Colony think that the filth they were living in for over four decades would generate wealth as well as energy.

“Just the fact that the dung will be removed from our roads and by-lanes makes me excited,” said 35-year old dairy farmer, Yasmeen Barkat, who took over her father’s business after his death in 2007. There are associated benefits. “Getting rid of the flies, reduction in diseases among our cattle, spending less on the water that we consume to wash the dung away from our farm and into the drains, and hopefully getting cheaper electricity,” are some of the advantages Barkat lists.

She has over 100 cows, buffaloes and goats, which seems a large number, but is a quarter of the size of the herd her father managed while he was alive.

The colony provides milk to many across Karachi —*Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim*
The colony provides milk to many across Karachi —Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Observing purdah, Barkat, happily manages the farm in Malir district, with her husband and eight workers. They sell up to 374 litres of milk every day to Ambala Sweets and Bakers with three outlets in Karachi. She pointed out that they use up huge amounts of water to clean their farm every day. “If we don’t, our animals will fall sick and die,” she said. All of this slurry eventually flows through the drains, untreated, into the Arabian Sea.

Her hopes, though, now rest on the biogas plant that is being planned on the huge tract of land next to the abattoir which will be powered by the dung when it is ready in two years.

Read more: Harnessing biomass energy

What she had no idea about was that the dung from her cattle would help run the 213 buses of the Karachi Breeze Red Line. This is one of the five bus rapid transit (BRT) lines that Karachi, a metropolis without adequate public transport system, will be getting in the next two years. “By then the biogas plant would also have started working,” said Masood Alam Farooqui, the director of City Fuel Gas Company, a biogas specialist with the BRT Red Line Project.

In addition the project documents state that the cheap, clean bus network will reduce planet-warming emissions by 2.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over 30 years.

The process

The cow manure will be put in a digester where the dung reacts with bacteria and produces different gases including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen and methane. “The idea is to separate methane, which is a liquefied natural gas, and transport it to CNG tanks at two designated bus depots,” said Farooqui.

The specially built buses will have cylinders to carry the gas on the rooftop. “Similar buses are part of the public transport system in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Turkey; they have recently been introduced in Delhi as well.”

While CNG buses were introduced into Karachi several years ago, they did not last. However, this time both the provincial and central governments and multilateral agencies are backing the project. In addition, said Farooqui, biomethane will be substantially cheaper than natural gas and this price differential will be passed on to commuters making it highly affordable thus free from any government subsidy. “Till there are cattle, there will be a secure long-term supply of fuel,” he said.

The project plans on turning the problems of the colony, especially filth in its open drains, into an opportunity—*Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim*
The project plans on turning the problems of the colony, especially filth in its open drains, into an opportunity—Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

“We are happy that for once, the consultants are using the right numbers for the number of animals and the potential for biogas generation. The move to offset fuel use for transport instead of power will make the project feasible,” said Salman Tariq, chief executive officer of Davaam, an energy services company providing clean energy and environmental solutions. However, he added, “The only thing to look out for would be to see how the liquid discharge from the plant is dealt with when and if the plant actually goes live.” Tariq has worked extensively on the biogas project while working at K-Electric, a decade ago when it was being developed as a waste-to-energy project using the same feedstock. He said this time the project has a better chance of taking off for several reasons.

“Multiple agencies like ADB [Asian Development Bank], AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank] and the French [developmental agency] are involved along with federal and provincial governments; there is political will and also the fact that this has been registered with the Green Climate Fund. There will be a need to showcase the success of this project. And given the climate change impacts in the last few years, I believe it has a much better possibility of succeeding than five-six years ago.”

Terming the project “transformational”, the advisor to the prime minister on climate change, Malik Amin Aslam, had said it was a “real cause for celebration” at the project’s unveiling earlier in November 2019.

Transforming the cattle colony

The cattle colony has an estimated 60,000 cows and buffaloes. In the first phase, however, 50% of the 4,000 tonnes of dung from a radius of seven kilometres radius will be picked up from the colony, said Farooqui.

“We will give this free of cost and in exchange, we will get a clean neighbourhood!” said Shakir Umar Gujjar, the president of the Dairy and Cattle Farmers Association. “You have no idea what it’s like in the rainy season when the drains overflow and we have to wade through knee-deep dung-filled rain water.” He said, it was the first time that anyone had come to them, “talked to us, helped us get organised, asked about our problems,” he explained.

Shakir Umar Gujjar, the president of the Dairy and Cattle Farmers Association, is deeply excited about the project—*Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim*
Shakir Umar Gujjar, the president of the Dairy and Cattle Farmers Association, is deeply excited about the project—Image by Zofeen T. Ebrahim

With 2,000 tonnes of dung the plant has the capacity to produce 20 to 23 tonnes of methane per day. “That is far more than we need.” The surplus, said Farooqui, “can be sold to K-Electric”, the private power company supplying electricity to Karachi. Interestingly, the over 2,000 shops in the New Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market) and the 65-acre Cattle Market, both near Sohrab Goth on the Super Highway, generate more waste than the Landhi Cattle Colony. “Cattle Colony is compact, farms are closer, animals live in smaller spaces so it is easier to pick manure from that area,” said Farooqui.

Another incentive is that after training, Karachi Breeze will hire farm hands in picking up the dung. “This will give them an added incentive,” said Gujjar.

In addition, there are programmes to invest in development of infrastructure and education. The latter was exciting for Gujjar who considered the colony as the biggest “campus” for veterinary and on-farm training. “Our next generation is reluctant to carry on with this profession, they find it dirty and smelly. But if an institute can be developed where they are taught about the modern techniques in breeding, set up labs where they are taught how to keep the livestock disease free, make feed that is nutritive etc, there is no reason why this cannot be a lucrative business,” he said. He lamented that the farmers lost money because they had no idea of value addition, maintaining a cold chain or packaging.

The money and the plan for the BRT

The plan for the Breeze BRT, with an estimated cost of USD 493.51 million, aims to cover the main Red Line corridor which extends over 24.2 kilometres from Numaish to Malir Halt Depot.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people will ride on the route daily, three times larger than the number of passengers in Punjab or Islamabad’s BRTs. The Sindh provincial government, which is the implementing partner is putting in a share of USD 75.5 million.

Related: ADB approves $235m for Karachi’s Red Line project

It is financed by the ADB (USD 225 million), the AIIB and Agence Française de Dévelopment (USD 71.81 million each). Because it includes several climate change adaptation and mitigation measures, it became the world’s first transport project to receive concessional loan ($37.3 million for the biogas plant and incremental cost for green fuel technology and an additional grant of $11.80 million) from the Green Climate Fund.

The project will save 245,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year; 4.9 million tons of CO2 emissions over a 20-year period; 38% of emission savings due to the BRT project (modal shift and efficiency) and 62% due to the waste-to-fuel biogas project. “The Karachi Red Line BRT, and especially the biogas project, is part of ADB’s vision to transform Karachi into a competitive, equitable, and environmentally sustainable urban centre,” ADB’s country director, Xiaohong Yang had said at its launch.


Header Image: Yasmeen Barkat with her cattle by Zofeen T. Ebrahim


This article originally appeared on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.