event 30 Mar 2021

Nexus Blog // The double-edged sword of solar-powered irrigation systems

By Stephanie Bilgram and Irene Sander. More than 100 participants from different regions and time-zones joined the 4th session of the FAO WEF Nexus Webinar Series in the NENA Region on Tuesday March 16th 2021. The webinar centred on two studies conducted by the NRD programme on Solar Powered Irrigation Systems (SPIS) in Tunisia and Morocco and a SPIS pilot project from Niger as well as an interactive discussion with the online audience on the merits of cross-sectoral policy-making and project designs.

Cover Picture FAO SPIS webinar article


The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Webinar series was organised by the FAO, in collaboration with the Stockholm Environment Institute and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, with the goal of introducing nexus concepts and showcasing examples of current efforts and best practices in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region. Through this series, participants were able to gain an understanding of the importance of the nexus approach and learn how to identify nexus challenges, as well as recognising appropriate nexus solutions which contribute to sustainability, resilience, and water security. This series was developed from lessons learned in the regional project "Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Water Efficiency/Productivity and Water Sustainability in NENA countries" (WEPS-NENA) under the FAO-led regional Water Scarcity Initiative (WSI). Funding for this project was provided by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

The Session

Solar-powered irrigation systems (SPIS) are widely used in arid regions such as the NENA region as a cost-effective means to support food production and sustain livelihoods. Irrigated agriculture plays a pivotal role for food security in this region, as surface water is often unavailable, making technologies that facilitate groundwater pumping particularly attractive. Because the cost of off-grid pumping is increasing due to the phasing out of diesel subsidies, the use of SPIS has become a more economically viable option for irrigation and is increasingly common. However, as SPIS becomes more popular, it increases the pressure on groundwater resources in the region leading to severe water overexploitation and threatening, among others, the future of agricultural activities. Integrated and cross-sectoral policymaking is necessary in order to address these challenges successfully. The session was conducted by two GIZ projects, the Nexus Regional Dialogue Programme* (NRD) and the Water, Energy for Food (WE4F)** programme. Speakers included Maria Ana Rodriguez (GIZ, NRD Team Leader), Irene Sander (GIZ, Adviser at NRD), Luca Ferrini (GIZ, WE4F Team Leader) and Stephanie Bilgram (GIZ, Adviser at NRD) as moderator.

SPIS in Tunisia and Morocco

The Nexus Regional Dialogues Programme conducted two studies on SPIS, with the aim of understanding the impact of the increased use of SPIS on groundwater and socio-economic development:

The two assessments revolve around interviews with smallholder farmers and provide recommendations which promote the sustainable use of the technology while also ensuring the water, energy and food security in the region. Although the increased use of water resources was location-dependent, a general trend of higher water consumption for irrigation was observed. The reason for the increased use of water could be traced back to the following practices:

  • Extending the irrigated area
  • Introducing intercropping practices
  • Increasing the water supply for the same crops

At the same time, with available subsidies to purchase solar-powered irrigation technology, farmers were able to reduce their overall costs and simultaneously increase their crop profit margin. The savings could in turn be reinvested into investments for increased production. Overall, interviewed farmers observed an 80% improvement of their economic situation thanks to the introduction of SPIS on their farms. These outcomes show that while innovative small-scale irrigation systems offer considerable opportunities for rural communities, they must be coupled with careful planning on the water supply side.

The presenter, Maria Ana Rodriguez emphasised the importance of ensuring means of control, such as:

  • Water metering, to ensure a sustainable use of water resources
  • Tying subsidies to conditions, e.g. the integration of water management plans, the construction of storage systems, as well as the collective use of SPIS through cooperatives in order to better regulate pumping amounts and ultimately ensure the sustainable consumption of water resources.

In addition, Ms. Rodriguez pointed out that reinforcing the capacities of local governmental to ensure regular control inspection should be an integral part of SPIS implementation.

After the first half of the session, the discussion turned towards the importance of awareness raising, capacity development as well as watershed management approaches – including measures to increase water supply security such as exploring groundwater recharge options.

Solar Powered Irrigation System (SPIS)
(c) GIZ

SPIS Case Study in Kollo, Niger

Thirty kilometres from the capital of Niger in the region of Kollo, access to water for agriculture, specifically rice production, is limited. In order to tackle this challenge, 180 women joined forces and formed a cooperative. With support from the two GIZ projects, four solar-powered water pumps were installed on the cooperative’s farmland to irrigate their crops in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. The project will also work closely with the national water user associations (CNU) in order to raise awareness and provide trainings, ensuring that stakeholders fully understand the consequences of over consumption of water resources. The aim of this project is to eventually double the cooperative’s income and thereby improve its members’ overall socio-economic situation.

The session was followed by a lively discussion on SPIS in the MENA region and West Africa. The discussion centred on the following main questions:

  • What are the biggest challenges integrated approaches, such as the WEF Nexus, face when trying to communicate their added-value?
  • How can we better take the costs of water scarcity and environmental costs for water overuse into account when designing SPIS policy recommendations?
  • What evidence is required on the ground to get policymakers, project implementers, and natural resources managers to secure buy-in of the WEF nexus and start applying it? 
  • Can water storage ease water scarcity? And how can it be promoted better?
  • What are the economic challenges of SPIS and what impact do they have on water use?
  • How can gender be integrated in the discussion on SPIS?
  • What are different incentive options to prevent water overuse?

For more insights on WEF Nexus experiences, make sure to join further webinars from this series here.

* The Nexus Regional Dialogue Programme is jointly funded by the European Commission and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)

** The WE4F Project is a joint international initiative of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of the Netherlands, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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