Studies suggest that shallow and abundant aquifers of the lower Gangetic basin in Nepal Terai, eastern India and Bangladesh can easily support 2.5 crops/year without any threat of long-term depletion. Yet, cropping intensity in the region continues to range between 1.2 and 1.5 crops/year. This is partly due to extreme land fragmentation – which makes investing in wells difficult for marginal farmers – and to a large extent due to high-energy costs of pumping groundwater. As a result, the poor end up paying a third or more of their irrigated crop output as irrigation fee to diesel pump owners from whom they purchase irrigation service at a premium. Governments are well aware of this inequity but attempts to subsidize diesel for smallholder irrigation have been frustrated by leakages. Delivering subsidized farm power is not only costly but also has a long gestation period. In this context, the falling prices of solar technology in recent years have opened up a new and attractive possibility.
Research carried out by the IWMI Tata Water Policy Program (ITP) shows that promoting small, individual, 1-2 kWp solar pumps is suboptimal. Instead, 5-6 kWp solar pumps should be offered to enterprising young men and women as solar entrepreneurs to catalyze competitive and equitable irrigation service markets. A 1-2 kWp solar pump can operate at full power 3-4 hours daily and pumps little water in the morning and evening, meaning that such pumps are used as standby with the larger diesel or electric pumps remaining as the mainstay for irrigation. As an alternative, ITP and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) are piloting a solar irrigation entrepreneurship approach in Chakhaji village, Bihar, India by supporting young entrepreneurial farmers as Solar Irrigation Service Providers in overlapping command areas. While the pilot is still in progress, it is already yielding positive results by: [a] creating competitive water markets offering pump-less farmers irrigation service at affordable price; [b] generating full time jobs for solar entrepreneurs; [c] increasing net incomes for farmers and solar entrepreneurs; [d] reducing CO2 emissions.
- Tushaar Shah, Senior Fellow, IWMI
- Gyan Prakash Rai, consultant, IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program
- Shilp Verma, consultant, IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program
- Neha Durga, consultant, IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program