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Implementation and Case Studies

Science Forum 2018 Case Study // Promoting Solar Irrigation Service Providers in Ganga Basin

By Tushaar Shah, Gyan Prakash Rai, Shilp Verma, and Neha Durga. It is widely recognised that the provision of irrigation can help millions of smallholder farmers intensively cultivate their small parcels to improve income and better cope with climate induced uncertainties. This is particularly true for Africa and parts of South Asia where the fortunes of millions of poor farmers continue to depend heavily on rain fed agriculture. The challenge is to expand irrigation access to the largest number of poor while keeping its costs affordable, without threatening resource sustainability and minimising its environmental footprint. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI)’s work in the eastern Gangetic basin in South Asia, home to a quarter of the world’s poor, has shown that if promoted well, solar powered irrigation can be a key part of the solution.

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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.

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Science Forum 2018 website (open access)

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