LHASA, July 22 (Xinhua) -- For hundreds of years, Tibetan nomad women have had the daily chore of collecting the dung of cows and yaks to use as fuel for cooking and heating.
The back-breaking task begins at daybreak and it often takes three to four hours to fill the 10-kg basket they carry on their back.
As the basket gets heavier, they must gingerly bend down to pick up dung from the grass and carefully toss it over their shoulder into the basket. A loss of balance could result in the already collected dung falling out of the basket.
The task is traditionally reserved for women, as it is thought of as "tedious manual labor," but this is changing thanks to a new invention, a modified wheelbarrow with a pedal-operated fork that scoops up the dung and lifts it into the bucket.
Purang, a nomad living in Nagqu County in northern Tibet Autonomous Region, was eager to try out the bright orange wheelbarrow before his wife Sadruo had a turn.
After scooping up some dung with a fork at the front of the wheelbarrow, Purang stepped on the pedal at the back to lift the fork and toss the dung into the bucket.
"This will make collecting dung more efficient. My wife won't need to get up so early and can spend more time taking care of our parents and children," said Purang.
Trials in Tibetan areas of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces showed that the wheelbarrow is six times faster than collecting dung by hand, according to Wang Guanghui, the product's inventor, who is also a professor at the College of Engineering at China Agricultural University.
While conducting a summer research program in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province in 2011, he was touched by the repetitive hard work undertaken by local Tibetan women and came up with the idea of inventing the wheelbarrow.
"Their backs become bent from the daily chore. But without collecting dung, their families have no chance of survival," said Wang.
Over the last six years, Wang has revised his design eight times to best suit the needs of the nomads.
One of the biggest concerns for both Wang and Purang was maintenance.
Except for the motorcycles some men now use in place of horses to herd their livestock, nomads rarely use any machinery and have limited mechanical knowledge. As their temporary settlements move with the seasons, they have limited access to repair shops in nearby townships.
Purang previously had an iron trolley but it became useless after a year as he couldn't find a repair shop to fix its damaged tire and replace rusty screws.
To prevent the plastic wheelbarrow ending up the same way, Wang visited nomad settlements to test many different samples of his product.
Earlier this year, the product's design passed national testing and evaluation. The current model uses solid tires to avoid punctures, and is made of materials resistant to ultraviolet light to prevent the plastic aging. It is operated manually with no power source.
Using only a few screws and nuts, the wheelbarrow is made up of eight components and can be assembled in three minutes. It weighs less than 10 kg, making it is easy to transport when nomads move to another area.
The wheelbarrows will cost 1,000 yuan (148 U.S. dollars) each. The first batch of 1,000 wheelbarrows was produced by Caozhou Xinrui, a chassis panel manufacturer in Hebei Province, thanks to a donation of 1 million yuan from Shanghai Hydraulic Engineering Group.
All 1,000 wheelbarrows have been given to Tibetan nomads with financial difficulties in Nagqu and Damxung counties. To qualify for a free wheelbarrow each family was asked to donate two bags of dung to a local school or kindergarten. The program was organized by Beijing Society of Workers Contributing to Tibet's Development, a non-governmental public welfare organization.
Fan Xiaojian, director of the society, is a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He and 20 other political advisors put forward a proposal earlier this year, suggesting the Ministry of Agriculture and other governmental departments support the development of the wheelbarrows.
"It is not a huge invention, but it will significantly assist Tibetan women and help improve the lives of nomadic families," he said.
There are 750,000 nomadic herding families in Tibet and the Tibetan-inhabited areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces. Dung will continue to be their major residential energy resource as moving with their herds will not allow them convenient access to electricity supplies even after China has achieved its goal of building a moderately prosperous society by 2020, Fan said.
"To help nomadic families live a better life, we not only need giant projects such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, but also practical inventions like this wheelbarrow," he said.
Wang Jian, secretary-general of Beijing Society of Workers Contributing to Tibet's Development, worked in Tibet for 40 years before retirement. He said poverty alleviation on the plateau is challenging as the harsh natural environment has restricted its development.
"On the Tibetan plateau, there are only two seasons, winter and almost winter. Dung is vital for the subsistence of each family. We have every reason to make dung collection more efficient and less arduous," said Wang.
As the wheelbarrow continues to be in trial use in the two Tibetan counties, Wang Guanghui said large-scale production will depend on feedback from the nomads.
"The product design may be further improved. The previous model was green, but we changed it to orange because we thought the color would stand out and could help rescuers locate nomads if there was a natural disaster," he said.