Solar powered irrigation is helping communities fight water scarcity


June 8th, 2018

By Menila Kharel and Sujan Piya

The impact of climate change on water resources is alarming. Increasing temperature is causing higher evaporation which causes extreme drying of lands leading to droughts across the world. Melting snow in the Himalayan Region has been affecting fresh water resources in the plains. Erratic rainfall with high run-off affects ground water reservoirs. All these factors off-set the supply system of water, affecting agriculture based livelihoods in most of the hilly areas of Nepal. Jumla District, one of the remotest hill pockets in Karnali, is no different.

Jumla holds huge agriculture potential. In fact, it is popular as first organic district, a super zone for apples and for the indigenous Marshi rice. Here, agriculture mostly relies on rain. But erratic rainfall and extreme winds have affected production in recent years.  Alternatively, the beautiful Tila River and natural water reservoirs are other sources of water. But communities have no means to use water from these sources. With the acute water shortage, the huge agriculture potentialities of Jumla has not been fully utilised.

In this context, Solar water pumps are demonstrated in four areas (Dhaulapani-2, Kudari-1 and Raaka-1) of Jumla District along the bank of the Tila River under the Practical Action’s BICAS project, funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid (JOA). These pumps are irrigating 8 ha of land and directly benefitting 130 households. Farming communities have now started inter-cropping in apple orchards and vegetable farming. For the last few months, Solar Powered Irrigation (SPI) has brought smiles to the faces of Jumla’s farming communities. When it was first introduced in their district, they did not believe it could lift water and help them to irrigate their lands.

“It seems like a miracle to us. We never had any idea about solar powered irrigation. With the regular availability of water, we are excited to expand apple orchards,”

Min Bahadhur Thapa, chairperson of solar pump user committee

Reducing drudgery  

Agriculture is mostly undertaken by old people in Jumla. Youths have left the district either for education or for employment in India and the Gulf countries. The one and only way to irrigate lands was to manually carry water from Tila River – an arduous job. Solar pumps now have helped both men and women farming communities avoid carrying loads of water for irrigation. They have saved significant labour and their time can be used for other income generation options.

Business model for sustainability “Pay for Water”

There is no electricity in the areas where solar pumps are demonstrated. Thus, these have been good option for the farming communities of Jumla. Solar water pumps are easy to operate and maintain. The pumps are socially and economically sound as they are cheaper than diesel pumps in the long run and demand no virtual labour.

Solar pumps lifting water high up to 102 m in  two stages in the hill in Jumla/Photo: Luitel A

The pumps are demonstrated under the grant scheme. SunFarmer, a renowned private sector company for solar pumps supported the installation of the pumps and training for local people. The locally developed skilled human resource will take care of maintenance if needed. The SPI system also leveraged funds from Prime Minister’s Agriculture Modernisation Project (PMAMP) and mobilised the community to contribute labour. SPI is managed by a user committee consisting both male and female members. The chairperson of the committee is responsible for operating pump and distributing water for communities. Communities are adopting “pay for water” scheme. Under this scheme, each household pays a fee for using water on a monthly basis. The amount collected is deposited in bank and will be used for care and maintenance of the pump. This “pay for water” scheme will allow the community years of sustainable use of the solar pumps.

Scaling up solar powered irrigation

Simple to use, labour saving and cost effective solar pumps have high potential for scaling up in Jumla and other  regions of Nepal where there is no electricity. Currently, the pumps are demonstrated under a grant scheme. Grant models are effective for demonstration or managing risk for farmers who have never used the technology before. The replication of such technology requires communities’ acceptance of the technology and willingness to pay, local government’s priority to promote technology and, more importantly, the private sector seeking a business incentive to expand their supply network. Financing such technology in rural hilly areas is a key issue for widespread use of such technology. Due to high transaction cost and higher risks, financial institutes rarely prioritise these areas for lending.

Scaling up solar pumps will turn these barren lands to lush green fields/ Photo: Luitel A

The payback period is often high when farmers invest but this can be minimized by adopting different business models like py-as–you-go, enterprise model of solar irrigation and water marketing, contractor model etc. The government of Nepal also provides huge subsidies for solar pumps. As per the Nepal’s renewable energy policy, farmers get 60 per cent grant, paying 40 per cent upfront. For women, the grant is greater – 70 per cent instead of 60 per cent, provided the ownership of land on which pumps are installed remains with women. After the pumps are installed, “pay for water” scheme ensures the sustainability of the solar pumps.

The solar powered irrigation is a climate smart technology, helping drought-hit farmers to irrigate their lands and increase agriculture production in rural areas of Nepal.

Leave a reply