In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH hosted an exploratory workshop to better understand the potential of solar-powered irrigation systems (SPIS) for developing countries. During the workshop, representatives from nineteen countries shared their experiences and knowledge of solar pumping technologies, covering large to small-scale systems in tropical to arid climate zones, for vegetable gardens, orchards and livestock watering, using surface and groundwater.
SPIS are nothing new. The first solar-powered pumps were installed in the late 1970s. Nevertheless, it was not until 2009 when the price of solar panels started to decrease dramatically, making solar technologies affordable for agricultural purposes. Since then, there has been a race for the development of more powerful and efficient systems; every year, there are larger pumps on the market that can withdraw water from greater depths. The market potential for both small-scale and large-scale systems is great. Prices continue to drop. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is projecting a 59 percent cost reduction for electricity generated by solar PV by 2025 compared to 2015 prices.
SPIS have many advantages, providing a clean alternative to fossil fuels and enabling the development of low-carbon irrigated agriculture. In areas with no or unreliable access to energy, they contribute to rural electrification and reduce energy costs for irrigation. This improves the access to water of many farmers and can have knock-on effects on agricultural productivity and incomes.
Now in 2018, this report takes stock of the experiences with SPIS around the world. What are the real costs and benefits of SPIS compared with other technologies? What rules, regulations and policies are needed to manage the risks and realize the potential of such systems? What are viable business models? How can smallholders benefit? How can the risk of groundwater depletion be addressed effectively? How can SPIS help to empower women and promote gender equity? What types of capacity development programmes are needed to support farmers, extension workers, local private sectors and others? What are the opportunities for knowledge exchange and technology transfer?
Nevertheless, there are also challenges with the uptake and use of SPIS that this report explores. It finds that access to finance, especially for small-scale farmers, as well as the accessibility of good quality products and services remains an issue in many countries. Further capacity development activities are needed to ensure to users have a basic understanding of set-up and functions of the system, and can take care of the daily operation and maintenance. In line with this, FAO and GIZ have also developed a Toolbox on Solar-Powered irrigation Systems for advisors.
The report also stresses the importance of water resources assessments and planning to avoid increasing pressures on water resources. By reducing costs, SPIS can improve people’s access to water. Nevertheless, without incentive to moderate water consumption, there is a strong risk of overexploitation, and even depletion of water resources. Coupling SPIS with efficient irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation, does not guarantee that water is saved. Water is simply reallocated to a greater area of land, more water-intensive crops, an additional cropping X season, or to other uses. In some cases, water is sold to neighbours, generating an extra income for farmers and adding further pressure on water resources where they are scarce.
This report looks at how different countries work to create an enabling environment for SPIS technologies, while managing the risks and challenges that come with it. As such, it is a timely reflection of past and future trends and clearly highlights the interlinked nature of water, energy and agriculture.