Jury still out on mega-solarisation of tube wells

Published October 28, 2023
EXPERTS believe solarised tube wells will lead to excessive groundwater extraction, disrupting the area’s ecology.—AFP/file
EXPERTS believe solarised tube wells will lead to excessive groundwater extraction, disrupting the area’s ecology.—AFP/file

ISLAMABAD: A mega scheme to solarise 100,000 tube wells across Pakistan, at the cost of about Rs370 billion, has drawn cautious appraisals from experts who term it a ‘double-edged sword’.

Towards the end of his tenure, then prime minister Shehbaz Sharif inaugurated the scheme, but the PC-1 of the umbrella project was only approved this month.

As its cost is shared between the provincial governments and the centre, its implementation is being spearheaded by the Federal Water Management Cell, a department of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research.

Sajid Altaf, a water management engineer working at the Federal Water Management Cell, who is also the chief architect of the project, said that the estimated cost to convert a single diesel-run tube well of 20 horsepower to solar power will be Rs2.6 million.

Their continuous operation could lead to depletion of the water table, experts warn

In the case of tube wells running on grid power, he said, the average cost could well exceed Rs4.5 million. “The most important part of this project is that farmers have to pay only 33 per cent of the money they require to solarise their tubewells,” he added.

There are some caveats, however. Federal government officials tell Dawn only shallow wells — whose depth is “less than 500 feet” — will be solarised out of 1.5 million tube wells being used for irrigation across Pakistan. Out of these, only 300,000 run on electricity.

Experts believe this project does not take into account the environmental cost of excessive extraction of groundwater that solarised tube wells might lead to. They cite “the lack of enforcement of regulatory measures and licencing regimes” that could easily cause such excessive water extraction.

Zain Moulvi, a member of the Alliance for Climate Justice and Clean Energy, said the solarisation project does not seem to be rooted in research.

“Is it aimed at adapting agriculture to changes in the climate or is it aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate,” he asked. Without this clarity, he said, it could be a “double-edged sword” by leading to over-extraction of groundwater since the government cannot monitor and enforce limits on the working of these tube wells.

Dr Hassan Abbas, a PhD from Michigan University in hydrology, agrees with this assessment. “If solarisation is being promoted without scientific support, such as hydrogeological studies of the areas, it might benefit some areas and harm others,” he said.

He also compared the project to SCARP, a project under which hundreds of thousands of subsidised tube wells were installed to overcome water logging and salinity caused by canal irrigation system in the Indus Basin.

Mr Altaf, too, admitted that the project could cause concerns about groundwater. A few years ago, a similar scheme for solarising tube wells in Balochistan was shelved as groundwater in the province was very low, he said.

He also cited a report by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources which warned against the conversion of tube wells at least in some water-scarce regions, including eight districts of Punjab, due to the same fear of water depletion. A ‘negative list’ prepared in the light of this report, according to him, rendered all these regions ineligible for solar tube wells.

To overcome the problem, Mr Altaf said, the government has taken certain precautionary measures. “Firstly, average operational hours of a solar tube is fixed at six; secondly, their water discharge is restricted to a low amount; and groundwater monitoring will be done regularly.”

Kifayat Zaman, director general of the Federal Water Management Cell, also said that farmers will not be provided with subsidised batteries so that they cannot run their tube wells at night.

Mr Altaf added that the provincial government are also required to develop mechanisms to keep track of groundwater where wells will be solarised.

Malik Mohammad Akram, who heads Punjab’s water management cell, also mentions that the Punjab Water Act 2019 introduced a licencing regime. He told Dawn that this act allows farmers to install new wells only after input from his department whose officials would visit the areas and develop a feasibility report. Under this regime, the operational hours of tube wells would also be regulated.

Mr Altaf, on the other hand, admitted that these provisions are not being implemented anywhere in Punjab. “Even though there are some restrictions on installing tube wells they are not implemented in the absence of an enforcer department.”

Although according to senior officials at the Federal Water Management Cell, the solarisation plan was formulated through consensus among all the stakeholders, former climate change minister Sherry Rehman told Dawn that she was “not aware of any consultations” with her ministry.

Commenting on this situation, Dr Abbas observed: “If stakeholders were not consulted, then it is obvious that the solarisation plan was made in isolation and may not be in synergy with water and climate change strategies.”

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2023

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