Solar Powered Irrigation System as an innovative and efficient technology to boost agricultural growth and transformation, alleviate poverty, ensure food and nutrition security and improve livelihoods and the resilience of rural communities in West Africa.
The increase in agricultural production and productivity for food and nutrition security depends, to a very large extent, on the availability of two essential productive resources: land and water.
Land and water are the primary natural resources necessary for agriculture, food production and rural development in most countries. If used in proper association with suitable technologies and sound investment, land and water have the capacity to enhance agricultural production. According to an FAO study, nearly 60 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s rural population could benefit from water investment.
The importance of irrigation for agriculture cannot be emphasized enough. It allows increasing crop yields by maintaining sufficient soil moisture necessary to soil health and plant growth. With irrigation, it is possible to production two to three time a year on the same land, making it an essential ingredient for boosting the agricultural productivity, which is one of the lowest in the world.
Some studies have shown that irrigation is able to generate an average income of approximately US$323/ha under smallholder-managed irrigation systems compared to an average income of US$147/ha for rainfed systems.
West Africa is dominated by drylands, with one rainy season, making it difficult, if not impossible to produce enough food without irrigation. The situation is even worsened by the climate change characterized by frequent drought and flood. It is estimated that by 2030, water scarcity could displace an estimated 700 million people in arid and semi-arid regions.
By 2030, the demand for food, energy and water wouldl increase by 50%, 45% and 30%, respectively and meeting these demands requires 175-220 million hectares of additional arable land. But as land expansion becomes more and more improbable and difficult due to its negative impact on ecosystems and the environment at large, agricultural intensification is proving to be the reliable and viable option of modern agriculture and water is a key factor.
West African Countries still depends at almost 98% on rain fed agriculture, despite irregular and insufficient rainfall, frequent drought, and the existence of considerable untapped water resources, the underground water in particular.
This form of agriculture may perform well only in regions with enough rain and where rainfall distribution ensures continuing availability of soil moisture during the critical growing period for the crops. This is not the case in West Africa.
Non-irrigated agriculture present a high risk of yield reductions or complete loss of crop from dry spells and droughts that occur in arid and semi-arid regions like west Africa.
With irrigation and improved seeds and best agronomic methods , it is possible to production two to three time a year on the same land, making it an essential ingredient for boosting the agricultural productivity, which is one of the lowest in the world.
The root cause of the irrigation problem in West Africa is not a lack of water but certainly the lack of sufficient energy and investment. Irrigation using ground water cannot be developed without energy. In West Africa which is well endowed with enough sunshine, the potential to develop solar powered irrigation system is very high. It only requires sound policies and sufficient investment.
Solar powered irrigation system is very efficient as it gives maximum water output when it is most needed, during hot and dry months. This system is also very relevant, especially in rural Africa characterized by inconsistent and rare access to electricity due to an expensive and unstable grid.
For long the cost of the system, especially solar panels and solar pumps, has been the major hindrance for its adoption, but since recent years, the price has dropped considerably and the system has become more and more affordable. Its most advantage is its reliability and low maintenance and operating cost as well as its environmental friendly nature. Another important advantage is that additional panels can be added to increase output if necessary.
Of course, the system has some limitations, but they should be easily mitigated: – Solar pumping is not suitable where the requirement is very high. The water yield of the solar pump changes according to the sunlight. It is highest around noon and least in the early morning and evening. So, it should be operated during noon time to get the maximum output. Theft of fixed solar panels can also be a problem in some remote rural areas. Farmers need to take necessary precautions, but mobile solar panels are also an interesting alternative in this case.
Putting it simple, the solar powered irrigation system comprises water mobilization with borehole drilling, supply and installation of solar water pumping systems comprising of submersible pump and accessories, the installation of solar panels and overhead tanks or water reservoirs, the design and construction of reticulation network for water supply and irrigation.
It has been noticed that FAO’s work toward sustainable water resource management puts emphasis on a more efficient, equitable and environmentally friendly use of water resource in agriculture and the use of solar powered irrigation system is seen as a sustainable and reliable solution to enhance water use efficiency in agricultural production system using renewable energy system.
FAO has successfully experimented the use of solar powered irrigation system (SPIS) in Africa. The system has been successfully tested in West Africa to improve the productivity of vegetable gardens of women in rural areas. The experience of the Gambia should be emphasized in this regards as a success story to emulate on for up scaling in the whole subregion. Around 50 ha of land were equipped with solar powered irrigation system for vegetable production by more than 2500 women. Some plot were equipped with drip irrigation system and the production is phenomenal. The system is a success in such a way that most of the projects have adopted the solar irrigation system for agro-sylvo-pastoral and fishery production in the Country.
This system has multiple benefits that contribute significantly to increase productivity, ensure food and nutrition security, reduce poverty, improve the livelihoods and increase the resilience of smallholder farmers to climate change. With solar powered irrigation system, it is possible to produce all year round a greater diversity of crops, especially very nutritious vegetables, diversifying into livestock, fisheries and agroforestry, providing year round higher incomes derived from local market sales and significant employment generation among young men and women. More interestingly, the system has improved clean and safe water supply for an improved sanitation and hygiene, an important element during this period of COVID 19 Pandemic.
It is paramount to assessing all potentials and means for upscaling small-scale solar powered irrigation technologies in West Africa.
An article by Eugene Rurangwa, Land and Water Officer, FAO Sub Regional Office for West Africa.
(The views expressed are solely the opinion of the writer and not binding on the organization)