Solar revolution in agriculture: plan beyond present

Updated 13 Jul 2020

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Majority of these tube-wells are energy inefficient and a burden on the national exchequer.  — Photo by Arif Watto
Majority of these tube-wells are energy inefficient and a burden on the national exchequer. — Photo by Arif Watto

PAKISTAN heavily depends on groundwater to sustain its agricultural production and to ensure food security. However, it is feared that the on-going unsustainable groundwater abstractions might have serious repercussions to the sustainability of the agrarian economy of Pakistan.

After the green revolution of the 1960s, groundwater use in irrigation has been increasing steadily in Pakistan. Between 1960 and 2010, the overall groundwater share to irrigation water supplies increased from nearly 8 per cent to more than 60pc.

The massive increase in groundwater use over the past few decades has been a result of open access to groundwater through large scale tube-well development. The outset of tube-well technology in Pakistan was largely facilitated by the government’s aid and support policies but without exercising any regulatory mechanisms to date.

Consequently, the number of tube-wells has gone over 1.3 million in the country and we have yet to develop an overall coherent groundwater regulatory mechanism and consistent policy to manage and use our groundwater resources. Our current water policy is lopsided, generic and without a clearly defined timeline to achieve any objectives related to groundwater management set in the water policy.

Pakistan’s irrigation water demand is predicted to go beyond 110km3 by 2025 under the business-as-usual scenario which is expected to be met mainly through groundwater abstraction. Currently, groundwater contributes about 65km3 to the overall irrigation water requirements.

Converting electricity-operated tube wells to solar-powered ones can help save at least Rs100bn as well as 4,000MWs of electricity

For this purpose, farmers mostly rely on diesel or electricity operated tube-wells with typical capacities ranging from 5 to 25 horsepower. Currently, there are 1.06m diesel operated tube-wells whereas 0.325m are connected to the national power grid which require an operational total load of 4,097 megawatts of electricity. This is roughly 17pc of the overall electricity consumption in Pakistan. Majority of these tube-wells are energy inefficient and a burden on the national exchequer.

On one hand, the government pays billions in terms of subsidies for these tube-wells, but on the other hand, the rate of recovery from these tube-wells remains very poor. For example, during May 2019, the Pakistan Electric Power Company reported only 34pc recovery by receiving Rs3.2bn out of a total assessment of Rs9.4bn for the month.

Converting electricity operated tube-wells to solar-powered tube-wells can help save at least Rs100bn which the government spends each year in terms of giving subsidies while saving more than 4,000MWs of electricity. Quite recently, the federal government has allocated Rs90m for undertaking a consultancy for assessing the feasibility of replacing the 30,000 electricity tube-wells by solar-powered tube-wells in Balochistan. Similarly, the government is also mulling over installing more solar-powered tube-wells in different areas of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh.

Besides various policies and strategies to harness power from renewable resources, different feasibilities have been undertaken on the prospects of exploiting and promoting renewable energy (particularly solar energy) in the agriculture sector. Different packages, policies and plans have been introduced by the government, which include duty-free import of solar photovoltaic modules and attractive financing mechanisms for borrowers with the help of the State Bank of Pakistan.

According to the Agricultural Credit and Microfinance Department of the State Bank of Pakistan, the banks lent some Rs131.2m for installation of tube-wells, including solar-powered ones. The Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited disbursed Rs25.65m over 2015-2017 to support solar-powered tube-wells mainly in Balochistan.

Pakistan is at the threshold of a revolution in the field of Solar Powered Irrigation Systems which have the potential to unleash the typical energy-groundwater nexus in Pakistan. As indicated in the National Water Policy 2017, the government is committed to exploiting this potential. Over the past few years, the number of solar-powered pumps will have grown steadily as well-off farmers have started installing them without any support from the government.

However, in the wake of groundwater scarcity, it is imperative to consider that solar-powered tube-wells, if not adequately managed and regulated, may lead to unsustainable groundwater use. Groundwater governance is a complex phenomenon which requires multidimensional approaches and actions that integrate institutions, policies, tools and technologies.

The complexity of groundwater governance is not only associated with solar-powered groundwater pumping but is also associated with conventional groundwater pumping systems and practices. Regardless, whether it is a conventional groundwater irrigation system or a solar-powered tube-well, a holistic groundwater governance approach includes consistent groundwater monitoring, education and awareness.

Nevertheless, evidence indicates that solar-powered tube-wells bear a relatively higher risk of fostering groundwater over-exploitation as there is no recurring input cost involved rather there is an incentive to intensify and expand the scale of operation through more and more pumping. It is, therefore, more important to complement solar-powered tube-well expansion with sustainable groundwater use policies.

The recommendations for the installation of different types of tube-wells promised to be formulated in the National Water Policy 2018 can be an important policy intervention towards groundwater management if formulated and enforced. These recommendations could include area-specific groundwater licensing rules along with a set of complementary groundwater monitoring and sanctioning policies.

The writer can be reached at arif.watto@uaf.edu.pk

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 13th, 2020