Solar pumps scheme for farmers should be redesigned to disincentivize overuse of water


By Simi Thambi*

On February 1, 2020, union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman released the annual budget of India for the financial year 2020-21. The budget speech made important announcements for agriculture, irrigation and rural development which have implications across land, water and energy sectors. Before the discussion over the budget fades, it is prudent to identify some of the land-water-energy components’ nexus approach to get insights on effective implementation.

The budget touched on these sectors in silos; however, it is extremely important to break these silos to understand the impacts, because land, water and energy actually operate in nexus. A nexus approach enables a comprehensive analysis of land-water-energy issues going beyond the barriers of traditional scientific disciplines to understand linkages across these sectors.

Solar pump deployment and water conservation should go hand in hand

The budget announced an expansion of the existing Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM) scheme to provide two million farmers stand-alone solar pumps, and help another 1.5 million farmers move their grid-connected pump sets to solar power. The KUSUM scheme was launched in last year’s budget with a target of installing 1.75 million stand-alone and one million on-grid solar pumps by 2022. While this is excellent news for decarbonising the coal-dominated power supply system of the country, it may adversely impact the ground water situation.

As per the Central Ground Water Board, 30% of aquifers in India are critically short of water. Overuse of irrigation pumps fuelled by subsidised electricity have resulted in groundwater depletion in several states of north India, like Punjab and Haryana. Subsidised electricity has also incentivised switching to water intensive crops, adding to the over-use of ground water. For this reason, the impact of large-scale solar deployment on sustainable development should be taken with a pinch of salt and monitored constantly.

There are lessons to be learned from other parts of the world. In Pakistan’s Sindh-Balochistan border near the Kirthar mountain range, the Kachho desert has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the use of solar-powered tubewells, increasing five times in two years, from 1,000 to over 5,000. Villagers report that there are as many as three new solar tubewells being installed in the area each day. The ground water level has fallen drastically from 70 to 450 feet.

Civil society organisations working in this area have rallied for strict laws to check over-extraction of ground water. In India, as the scope of the scheme expands through this year’s Budget, it is important to learn from the Kachho and similar experiences.

Off-grid solar pumps come with high capital cost and the excess electricity generated from the pump cannot be diverted to productive uses elsewhere. Although most states are subsidising 70-90% capital cost of the pump, from a systems perspective compared to grid connected pumps, the energy loss from off grid pump can be high. The use of these pumps should be restricted to regions that are not connected to the electricity grid and have no other clean irrigation alternative. Grid connected solar pumps are more energy efficient.

There are states where this model is working very well. The best-known example is that of Dhundi in Gujarat, where some farmers assisted by the International Water Management Institute have managed to use excess power from their grid-connected pumps. Both surplus electricity and surplus water pumped from the solar pumps can be sold. However, even in this arrangement there is no legal check on over extraction of ground water. If this continues, the situation can worsen over time.

Civil society organisations in India have already started rallying to have this energy-water nexus taken into account by policymakers. A recently released report by the New Delhi-based think tank, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), shows that Maharashtra  has been aggressively promoting off-grid solar pumps in water scarce regions with 90-95% subsidy to improve irrigation in light of the poor state of rural electricity supply. CSE surveyed 72 farmers. The survey shows that farmers on an average have experienced a dip of eight feet per year in the water table.

The report recommends that the scheme must only be applied to regions where aquifers do not face the risk of over extraction. This must be the compulsory filter before a region is selected for implementation of the KUSUM scheme. The capacity of state governments in different ministries should built in a manner that they implement schemes like KUSUM keeping in mind water-energy nexus concerns. In its current form, the scheme looks at agriculture development from the prism of renewable energy only, by incentivising switch to solar energy. The scheme should be appropriately redesigned to have in-built measures to disincentivize overuse of water. Only then will this scheme contribute to sustainable development in the true sense.  At the community level as well, it is important to generate awareness about the nexus impacts.

Sustainable cropping should also mean water savings from late sowing

The Budget announced adopting sustainable cropping patterns. This timely announcement needs to be seen with a wide lens, going over and above the traditional understanding of changing cropping pattern understood as crop diversification. It also implies an integrated approach to crop management. Sustainable cropping patterns should be implemented by making adjustments to the period of sowing and harvest for optimal use of scarce water resources.

An excellent example to demonstrate the case is Punjab, which contributes a major share of India’s cereal production. Despite several efforts to promote crop diversification, farming of water-intensive rice and wheat continues to prevail in Punjab. This has markedly worsened the ground water level in the region.

Recognising these issues, local officials pitched for long term sustainability of water, energy and agriculture by integrating intra and inter-sectoral concerns. They initiated legal action which delayed the sowing season of paddy by five days, resulting in saving 24 million litres of water. Earlier, the government had delayed sowing dates in 2008 and 2015 to June 10 and June 15 respectively. In 2019, it was further delayed to June 20. The five-day delay in paddy sowing reduced the time between paddy harvest and wheat sowing by 10 days. Not only has this helped in improving productivity by conserving water; it also showcased the adaptive capacity of the local system to respond to the delayed monsoon trend due to climate change.

A nexus approach to implementation is therefore the need of the hour. It is good news that this year’s economic survey of India recognised the importance of nexus approaches to sustainable development. The chapter on climate change in Volume 2 of the Economic Survey mentions that it is necessary to look at systems instead of individual components or short-term outcomes; look at the interrelated feedback from other sectors; and promote cooperation among sectors while reducing competition for scarce resources. The task now is to ensure that this approach percolates into implementation at different levels of governance.

*Technical consultant at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Source: The Third Pole

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s