8 Learnings To Make Decentralized Energy Powered Irrigation Programs Effective

India faces a twin challenge of water scarcity and rise in population. The on-going water crisis has affected nearly 600 million people and is expected to only worsen: The country’s population is touted to increase to 1.6 billion by 2050.

The agriculture sector is the largest consumer of surface water in India. It accounts for approximately 90 per cent of annual freshwater withdrawals in the country. With growing industries, water would be diverted to other sectors and agriculture would have to make its peace with lesser and poorer quality of water.

Climate change too has aggravated water scarcity concerns: It can, through its impact on weather patterns, affect livelihoods and well-being of our farming community. The impact of climate change is much more evident in Indian agriculture, where around 85 per cent farmers are small and marginal and 60 per cent agriculture is dependent upon the vagaries of monsoon. Further increasingly affected by higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns is affecting glacier and snowmelt in the Hindu Kush Himalaya Mountains resulting in shifts in replenishing mountain runoff with glaciers and snow cover receding.

Irrigation offers a way to ensure regular supply of water, thereby ensuring food and livelihood security. However, irrigation needs to be seen within the context of sustainable water usage and the associated factors involved to adapt to more efficient water extraction methods. Sources of water range from groundwater, surface, sub-surface levels and irrespective of the source, adequate attention needs to be paid to effective use of per drop of water for agriculture (“more crop per drop”) and rising cost of lifting water (fossil fuel and electricity) for which then factors related to crop management, irrigation method etc. contribute to understanding the most effective water extraction design while using pumps.

It is in that context that it is imperative to design sustainable irrigation programs in which consideration of a broad range of factors contributes to appropriate water pumping designs. With rising diesel pump and electricity costs, solar pumps offer cost-effective alternatives in irrigation programs. However, if not designed and administered properly can lead to the growing water scarcity and ultimately collapse of agriculture.

The purpose of this document is to capture lessons from solar pump irrigation interventions that will assist with future program designs in different geographies or countries. It is acknowledged that every region and area have different maturities in availability of local stakeholders, dominant agricultural practices, water sources, water management practices, availability of technical service providers, policy conditions and so on. This document seeks to highlight these different factors so that depending on the local context they are taken into consideration in order to build a sustainable irrigation program.

Below is a presentation of these predominant aspects:

Understanding Water Sources & Its Ownership

Understanding pros and cons of different water sources, for example, Natural runoff (canals, rivers, streams), groundwater (open wells, bore wells), artificial water storage points (farm ponds, check dams). For instance, in one case on a land of 30-50 acres catering to around 18-22 farmers, it was assessed that in preliminary discussions groundwater levels were good and reliable as a source. However, in the period between discussions additional bore wells were being planned in anticipation of solar water pumps. This led to an assessment that with additional bore well construction the existing groundwater levels would deplete leading to possible water scarcity in the area. This cautioned the stakeholders to desist from suggesting the source as groundwater and explore other options.

Further understanding sources helps to gauge the ownership model and technical design of the solution. This aspect needs to be taken into consideration. Related to ownership is a behavioural aspect that manages expectations around sharing, hesitation to share due to limited water resources particularly during seasonal differences. Significant time goes into consultations/group discussions to bring about individual and community buy in. Typically, individual ownership is preferred and prevails wherein one person can provide multiple pump service to groups of farmers.

Groundwater recharging is a priority to consider so as to avoid unforeseen overuse and subsequent drop in water table levels.

A partnership with research institutes assisted in mapping water tables and points of recharging. Efficient ground water management and subsequent capacity building around groundwater management for farmers is imperative to go hand in hand with any sort of water pump intervention.

Training on multi-crop patterns and seasons to ensure that by introduction of the pump and therefore increase irrigation, farmers are able to maximise productivity. For example, in a farm area in Anantapur there existed farm ponds but despite its presence the farmers resorted to manual watering via water tanks or otherwise in order to maintain 8-10 waterings within 90 days for the local prevalent groundnut crops. Even so for those who could not hire water tankers the production process was highly erratic. The absence of a pump prevented the use of the farm pond. With the introduction of the solar pump, not only did it enable more systematic watering but also enabled farmers to look beyond the existing monoculture to produce additional 2 crops. This has increased their resilience against shocks from a single crop dependence. The presence of agriculture and crop management partners and community organizations was essential for its success.

Irrigation methods vary from flood irrigation to micro irrigation (sprinkler or drip). Flood irrigation has been a relatively prevalent practice and if pumps are introduced would lead to a large system design. Given its traditional practice, it’s an accepted practice of using 4,000 – 5,000 litres of water per kg of grain produced, and there is hesitation among farmers to switch to other techniques such as micro irrigation despite proven evidence to the contrary. However the myth of this amount of water to be used for paddy has been debunked with results showing that a significant drop in water use leads to the same yield results. Micro irrigation is preferred as its efficiency leads to more efficient technical design of pumps. However, this requires partnerships to be able to assist in switching behaviours or perceptions around traditional practices of flood irrigation. This is not to say flood irrigation is not required anywhere rather this needs to be evaluated under what basis is it being practiced in order to determine if its more a default versus the most effective practice.

Forward linkages and backward linkages[1] such as marketing, seedlings, other inputs need to be considered by the local partners before intervention. This has implications on the “cost” of the intervention for the farmer. Local partners with the appropriate experience need to be brought in to assist with these linkages. Further DRE opportunities exist when mapped across the value chain. For example, farm level transfer of extra produce to Farmer Producer Organizations processing which was in turn powered by solar.

There are plenty of govt. programs or schemes related to watershed management, soil moisture management, micro irrigation that were tapped into by partners as part of the intervention. Therefore, one should explore complementary programs that can enhance the efficacy of the intervention

Partners connect with the community: When the partners come up with proposals – they are already in good contact with the community, so that helps in mobilizations, stimulating repayments, flagging bottlenecks. Farmers accepting the solution is a crucial push by these community partners. In addition, partnerships have extended to MFIs, NABARD, line departments, technical partners.

Technical design has two important considerations in addition to the regular parameters. This includes:

  1. Plan for designs such that it can be used for other allied activities
  2. Understand usage patterns of pumps by farmers to understand design better- night time versus daytime
  3. Water table changes – resulting the change in the designs.

Principle of subsidies and financial models- Subsidies are an incentive mechanism to reduce the capital cost of technology and/or to encourage access to credit for the end users. There are various subsidy combinations depending on

  1. Ability of individual to contribute,
  2. Support from local or regional policies
  3. Availability and accessibility of formal credit
  4. Availability of donor monies (public and private)

Given marginalized farmers all over the world including India, subsidies are necessary to activate uptake of solar pump and effective irrigation programs. However, if calculated ineffectively, it can perversely incentivize over consumption of water and use of electricity. Ultimately increasing a forever hand-out burden on sources of capital.  Subsidies needs to also be calculated based on which part of irrigation ecosystem listed above is under-developed, non-existent or difficult to active. Subsidies have ranged from irrigation to fertilizer to formal credit linkages and electricity usage. They have been uses in the form of equipment capital subsidy, reduced electricity tariffs, land leasing, interest subvention, risk guarantee fund and so on. While there is not one formula that is effective for solar pump subsidies, calculations for how to allocate subsidies should broadly consider income flow, availability of credit, availability of backward and forward linkages, crop management and support from existing policy schemes.

In the age of climate change with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns putting farmers in even more vulnerable positions, an opportunity exists to re-evaluate the current top down approaches to irrigation programs. Rather focus on bottom to top approaches that take into consideration financing and institutional capacity that already exists on aspects of water and soil management (including through other govt. agencies), to create the most optimal programs that benefits the end user and the local environment.


These lessons have been gleaned from primary interviews with SELCO partners and teams. While not mentioned, SELCO is grateful for its partnerships with technical service providers, government, local NGOs who have collaboratively worked to bring in all the above aspects to develop truly sustainable irrigation programs that are in harmony with water conservation and judicious agriculture practices.

[1] In most cases by SustainPlus, there existed fairly robust linkages and local stakeholders who could plug in the gaps.


Share on email
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on xing
Share on print