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Solar powered irrigation systems: an untapped opportunity

Worldwide, food is produced mainly on rainfed land with approximately 95% of farmed land in subSaharan Africa and 60% in South Asia relying on seasonal rains to meet water needs. Productivity on these farms, many of which are subsistence, can be particularly low, exacerbated by unpredictable rainfall.

Increasing productivity in the agriculture sector is widely recognised as one of the most effective ways to fight poverty. Irrigation is among the measures that can improve yields, reduce vulnerability to changing rainfall patterns and enable multiple cropping practices. Land that is irrigated tends to give greater crop yields than land which is rainfed. Looking forward, yields will need to increase to cope with rising demand for food and the land area under irrigation will expand. Transporting water from the source to the fields will require affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

Solar powered irrigation has gained prominence lately, providing reliable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable energy for decentralised irrigation services in many settings. When deployed, the benefits include improved livelihoods (increased productivity and incomes, and food security), increased social welfare (poverty alleviation, emissions reduction) and reduced spending on fossil fuel subsidies and centralised energy infrastructure.

Contributing to several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, these solutions are becoming increasingly widespread, as demonstrated by the initiatives of a growing number of governments, development agencies and the private sector. Bangladesh, for instance, has set a target to deploy 50 000 solar pumps by 2025; India, 100 000 by 2020; and Morocco, 100 000 by 2022. 

A case study in Zimbabwe demonstrates the transformational impact of solar irrigation. Oxfam’s Ruti Dam Irrigation Scheme uses solar pumps to expand the coverage of the scheme from 40 hectares to 60 hectares. Two-thirds of the Ruti scheme is based on gravity-fed irrigation, and additional solar booster pumps have been deployed to pump water into a storage reservoir. Nearly 270 smallholder farmers, who were previously growing little more than subsistence crops of maize, can now feed themselves, earn an income and also their neighbours can benefit. Farm yields have increased to an average of 4-5 tonnes per hectare. Irrigation enables farmers to grow three crops a year and increase diversity into the rotations to include cash crops, such as potatoes and sugar beans.

A project evaluation by Oxfam shows that household incomes increased by 286% for the very poor, 173% for the poor and 47% for the middle income groups. Furthermore, employment creation increased as farmers no longer had to target large-scale farm employment in exchange for food, producing food and new job opportunities on their own land instead.

IRENA’s new Policy Brief on Solar pumping for irrigation: improving livelihoods and sustainability (2016) analyses diverse case studies where solar irrigation solutions have been deployed and brought substantial benefits for farmers as well as governments. 

 

Download the full IRENA Policy Brief here.