Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Are solar powered irrigation pumps the answer in South Asia?

Jul 2018
20

In this first piece in a new blog series on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, Aditi Mukherji of the Nexus Knowledge-Action Network examines the potential of solar powered irrigation pumps in South Asia.

 

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Blog Series

Delivering water, energy and food for all in a sustainable and equitable way is a major challenge faced by society. The water-energy-food nexus concept aims to address this by better understanding how interactions between water, energy and food are shaped by environmental, economic, social and political changes and how the synergies and trade-offs among them can be better planned and managed. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is a network of people and organisations which fosters transdisciplinary research and communicates the importance of holistic system approaches across water, energy and food systems. Acknowledging that the nexus concept is often described as overly academic and not practical on the ground, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is organising this blog series to illustrate the role of the nexus concept in addressing local and national challenges of sustainable and equitable access to resources. Understanding the perceptions and entry points with which local and national stakeholders can engage with the nexus concept is key to further implementing nexus approaches, especially in the Global South.

Learn more about the Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network. 

Are solar powered irrigation pumps the answer to the water-energy-food nexus in South Asia?

By Aditi Mukherji

Introduction

Water, energy and food are intricately related resources. The fact that decisions in one domain affect the other two is recognized worldwide as the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus, but this relationship is rarely as complex as it is in South Asia. South Asia is the world’s largest user of groundwater, accounting for approximately 260 cubic kilometers of annual groundwater extraction through approximately 30 million wells and tube wells. While groundwater irrigation was thought to be the key factor that ushered in the Green Revolution in the 1970s and led to a phenomenal increase in agricultural production, it came with serious downsides: over-extraction of groundwater in most parts of South Asia (except in the eastern Gangetic belt), increasing losses to the electricity utilities due to massive subsidies, and high carbon and short lived climate pollutant (SLCP) emissions. South Asia, in effect, has an invidious WEF nexus, where the growth in one sector – agriculture, has been supported by unsustainable trends in two sectors – energy and groundwater. In recent years, this has meant that agricultural growth has been stagnant, among other things, due to groundwater and energy crises.

Much has been written on possibilities for managing this nexus. Various policies have been implemented, although with mixed results. Just when the expansion of wells and tube wells in South Asia and, especially, India stabilised around the mid-2000s, solar powered irrigation pumps (SPIPs) arrived. While SPIPs have been around for more than four decades, it was only in the early part of this decade that the technology became affordable, with sharp declines in price of solar panels. Since then, many have hailed SPIP as a “silver bullet” to tackle the region’s WEF nexus.

SPIP as the “silver-bullet”?

Four key reasons SPIPs offer a promising alternative to diesel and electric pumps:

  1. By replacing diesel pumps in areas with limited access to grid electricity (such as eastern India, Nepal Terai and parts of Bangladesh), which also are areas with abundant groundwater, SPIPs reduce the cost of irrigation for small farmers, incentivize them to grow more crops or sell irrigation services to others and in the process, improve their incomes and livelihoods.

  2. Any reduction in diesel usage also reduces SLCP emissions, which has beneficial health and agricultural outcomes.

  3. Increased adoption of SPIPs can reduce reliance on fossil fuels and pave the way for a clean energy future.

  4. Widespread adoption of SPIPs, if encouraged by regionally differentiated policies, can help reduce groundwater overexploitation in some places and put agricultural growth on a higher trajectory in other places.

Potential benefits of SPIPs can be harnessed only through regionally differentiated policy regimes. In other words, SPIP policies needs to be different in those parts of South Asia where groundwater is already over-extracted and farmers have access to either grid electricity (most parts of India, except eastern India) or rely on canal water or diesel pumps (as in much of Pakistan); from those areas where groundwater is still under-developed and where electricity has not reached majority of farmers (eastern India, Nepal Terai and Bangladesh). The financial incentives for promoting SPIPs also need to be different when the majority of farmers are smallholders as opposed to large and medium farmers. Overall, the right mix of policies and institutions can help negotiate two types of risks: one, the physical over-extraction of groundwater and two, exacerbating social inequity through exclusion of small, marginal and women farmers.

Managing the twin risks of groundwater overexploitation and social exclusion: Experience from four South Asian countries

Have the four South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan put in place regionally differentiated policies to mitigate the risks of groundwater overexploitation and social exclusion? The answer is mixed at best.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh aims to install 50,000 SPIPs by 2025. This is a modest target given that the country has around 1.5 million mechanised wells and tube wells, of which around 85-90 percent run on diesel. So far, just under 1000 SPIPs have been installed through the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), the nodal agency in Bangladesh, in just two districts of the country. The pace of implementation is rather slow. However, IDCOL’s “fee for service” model, where the owner of the SPIP (be it a private solar company or a local NGO) provides irrigation services to farmers for a fee, helps small and marginal farmers to get access to electricity without having to invest in a SPIP.

India

India has the most ambitious target, with plans to install 1 million SPIPs by 2021. However, here too, the actual pace of implementation is much slower, with around 100,000 SPIPs having been installed since the start of program in 2014. The main modality for financing SPIPs is through subsidy, with some states providing as high as 90 percent capital cost subsidy. High subsidy and low budgetary allocation for those subsidies has meant that a majority of the subsidies are cornered by rich and politically connected farmers. In addition, the states with the highest subsidies are also some of states with a severe groundwater overexploitation problem. The current SPIP adoption pattern shows that over 70 percent of SPIPs so far have been installed in the groundwater over-exploited states of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka, thereby exacerbating groundwater risk concerns. A recent government scheme to connect SPIPs to the grid and allow farmers to sell power back to the grid, while well intentioned, is not well thought through and is not likely to incentivize farmers.

Nepal

Nepal has recently announced capital subsidy schemes for SPIPs, but overall progress is slow. While firm estimates are not available, it seems that there are not more than 150 SPIPs in Nepal and majority of these are in the narrow strip of plain called the Terai. Although groundwater overexploitation is not an imminent threat in much of the Terai, it is for the social exclusion of poor, marginal and women farmers. Except for a few pilots projects, like those conducted by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), where women farmers were given an additional 10 percent discount on the condition that land was transferred to her name, the majority of SPIP projects do not give adequate attention to social exclusion issues. Moreover, given that Nepal will be energy self-sufficient in the near future and all of its electricity will be from clean hydropower, giving grid connection to farmers will be more cost effective than investing in SPIPs in Nepal.

Pakistan

Pakistan is the only country in South Asia which hasn’t yet developed any plans or programs to promote SPIPs, although some of policies are on the anvil. Despite this, the private sector is quite active and around 1000 or so SPIPs are in operation, mostly in the Punjab province. Since there are no subsidy programs, farmers pay the full cost of the equipment – and only rich farmers can afford these.

To sum up, while SPIPs are a promising technology that can indeed help solve some of the problems inherent in South Asia’s WEF nexus, the current trend in SPIP policies (or lack of) is disheartening, as they do not adequately address the twin risks of groundwater overexploitation and social exclusion. Bangladesh is however somewhat of an exception, although the high costs of SPIPs remain a barrier to rapid adoption. If the current policy trends, which ignore the risks, continue, SPIPs will become a part of the WEF nexus problem in South Asia and not a solution.

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