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Solar greenhouses in Himalayas boost nutrition, income for villagers

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Solar greenhouses that nurture vegetables despite outside temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius are among the innovations recognised by international energy awards June 11, 2009 at a ceremony in London. The greenhouses, developed by the French nongovernmental organisation Groupe Energies Renouvelable Environnement et Solidarités (GERES), are used in the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh.

The region's high altitude of 3,500 metres and low rainfall result in an outdoor growing season of just 90 days a year — making fresh vegetables imported from the plains a rare treat — but there is abundant sunshine 300 days a year.

Farmers grow food ranging from spinach to strawberries in the winter and seedlings in the spring. In autumn, the greenhouses extend the growing season of crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and grapes.

GERES received the Ashden Award for improved nutrition for improving the nutrition of villagers and boosting their income by working with local organisations to help them grow fresh vegetables year-round in simple passive solar greenhouses.

Nearly 600 family-owned greenhouses were installed by the end of 2008, which also increased incomes by almost a third. Farmers sell or exchange surplus vegetables and seedlings locally — an estimated 50,000 people are thought to have benefited from the fresh produce. And because the locals transport fewer vegetables, 460 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions are avoided every year.

The greenhouses consist largely of local materials. Each has a long, south-facing side of heavy-duty polythene; thick mud-brick walls to absorb heat during the day and release it at night; and insulated walls and roof. Some of the walls are painted black to absorb heat. Natural ventilation prevents over-heating and excessive humidity.

Each greenhouse costs around US$600 to make. GERES provides the polythene, door and ventilation — about a quarter of the cost — while prospective owners either buy or collect the remaining materials and employ the labour or do the work themselves.

"In a lot of places this is the first time that fresh vegetables have been available in winter," says Vincent Stauffer, Indian country director for GERES. Stauffer told SciDev.Net that the health of people in the region has also improved — it is difficult to do a scientific assessment of health but there is anecdotal evidence for this from both local doctors and the community, he says.

GERES has provided free access to the plans and people in Afghanistan, China, Nepal and Tajikistan have now built the greenhouses. A community of practice to exchange ideas about their use will appear on the Solar Greenhouse website.

This story is slightly adapted from Solar greenhouses bring vegetables in from the cold, by Katherine Nightingale, datelined London 11 June 2009 and distributed by SciDev.Net. The pictures, taken by GERES India, come from the Ashden Awards site. The Ashden Awards bring to light inspiring sustainable energy solutions in the UK and developing world and help ensure that they are spread more widely. Since 2001, they have helped more than 100 innovative projects develop their work.

SciDev.Net – the Science and Development Network – is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing reliable and authoritative information about science and technology for the developing world. Its website gives policymakers, researchers, the media and civil society information and a platform to explore how science and technology can reduce poverty, improve health and raise standards of living around the world.

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