The following is a guest post by Petra Schmitter, a Senior Researcher at the International Water Management Institute. Schmitter also leads the Research Group on Agricultural Water Management and is a speaker at the 2019 Water for Food Global Conference.
Africa’s groundwater reserves are about 100 times greater than its annual supply of renewable surface freshwater. Yet, this resource remains underused. In India, a tube-well is sunk, on average, every 6 seconds, while in sub-Saharan Africa, only 1% of the groundwater is used. Under the pioneering Agwater Solutions Project, researchers estimated that investments in motorized pumps could significantly boost agricultural production and reduce climate change risks for smallholder farms. They further concluded that these investments could benefit 185 million people, generating net revenues up to USD 22 billion per year.
During recent years, the pace of irrigation development has increased in the region as a response to the need for effective means of adapting agriculture to climate change. However, farmers’ lack of access to rural markets and services and energy supplies (electricity and fuel) pose major obstacles. Against this backdrop, solar irrigation solutions are becoming more affordable for smallholders. Prices for solar panels have dropped substantially – from USD 60 per watt in the 1970s to USD 0.52-0.72/watt in 2016 – and are expected to decline by another 59% by 2025 (IRENA, 2016a).
Nonetheless, other barriers to smallholder irrigation remain, which vary highly between and within countries. Key challenges include: (i) insecure land tenure; (ii) lack of infrastructure (e.g., roads, electricity, wells); (iii) limited access to small-scale irrigation technologies as well as credit for such purchases; (iv) lack of after-sale services (e.g., maintenance and spare parts); (v) lack of reliable markets (including value chains for both crops and technology), and (vii) changing demographics in agriculture (migration of male labor). Which solar solutions are needed thus depends on a variety of social, institutional, policy, biophysical and cultural factors.
Testing of various modalities for solar irrigation in Africa and Asia has yielded important lessons that can inform further promotion of this technology. The different modalities are variously aimed at safeguarding water resources, enhancing social inclusion and reducing the up-front cost of the technology. In Ethiopia, for example, solar pumps show potential to transform 18% of the country’s currently rainfed agricultural land and replace 11% of the hydrocarbon fuel pumps no in use. Moreover, there is ample scope for South-South learning and transfer. To ensure that solar pumping remains suitable over the long term, however, policies and projects should encourage monitoring of environmental impacts, as farmer-led solar irrigation expands in Africa. With continuing development of solar pumps as well as the Internet of Things, new opportunities are emerging to provide digital and other information support for smallholder farmers, as they strive to adapt production to climate change, while safeguarding natural resources.