ICIMOD introduces solar irrigation systems in Saptari District, Nepal


A woman farmer, a water seller, a large farmer, and a farmer’s association became the first farmers in Saptari to harness solar energy to irrigate their farms. ICIMOD, through a project funded by Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, installed a two-horse power (HP) solar powered irrigation pump (SPIP) for the water seller and three one-HP for other farmers to demonstrate the value of SPIP, raise awareness, and promote alternative energy for irrigation. The SPIP will be demonstrated to farmers for one year starting August 2015, in a land where erratic and low-voltage electricity supply have forced farmers to depend heavily on diesel pumps for irrigation. ICIMOD procured the systems from Pune based company Atom Solar. The recipient farmers contributed half of the costs of building and installing the systems to demonstrate the value of SPIP to other farmers. 

The attempt to introduce new technology came with its share of social and technical problems. Beneficiary farmers were hesitant to invest in new technology and were concerned about theft and vandalism. An ICIMOD team supervised the installations, trained the beneficiaries on basic dos and don’ts, and demonstrated the potential of SPIPs to farmers to build their confidence in the system. To reduce the chances of theft and vandalism, farmers agreed to build a fence around the system and purchase insurance. ICIMOD conducted focused group discussions with the beneficiaries and other farmers in their communities to explain the system’s advantages and limitations and to clarify that non-recipient farmers could also benefit from the SPIP demonstration without investment. The most technically challenging issues were finding the most appropriate site for digging borewells and installation of pumps during monsoon. 

The systems are designed to operate under adequate sunshine. On a sunny day, the two-HP pump can discharge up to 28,000 litres per hour for irrigating up to five hectares of land and the one-HP pump can discharge up to 16000 litres per hour and irrigate up to two and a half hectares of land. Typically, irrigation has been a male dominated activity because of the high physical exertion required for operating a diesel pump. SPIP has made it less physically intensive allowing woman farmers to operate it comfortably and promises to improve the local livelihoods by offering year-round irrigation with a one-time investment and freedom from recurring expenditure on diesel. ICIMOD is hopeful that a large scale replication will lead to increased agricultural output and food security.

In spite of the issues encountered during the installation period, the farmers were positive after seeing the performance of the pump. ICIMOD will launch a larger pilot program with another 30-40 pumps in 2016 in Saptari as part of its research program and, in the process, test the most appropriate financial mechanism for sustainable upscaling.