Solar power lights up work life for Nepalese farmers

For farmers and their families in the poorest district in Nepal, a new solar water pump is helping make a tough life easier

A vendor sells apples under a plastic rain sheet. Solar is helping the poorest farmers in Nepal. Reuters
A vendor sells apples under a plastic rain sheet. Solar is helping the poorest farmers in Nepal. Reuters

Bhadri Sarki used to walk for more than an hour to fetch enough water to irrigate just one apple tree.

But since a solar-powered water pump was installed in her village, about 350 km north-west of Nepal's capital Kathmandu, she can hydrate her whole orchard in a few hours.

“We have a sufficient amount of water available in the field, and the only work left is to nurture the plants,” Ms Sarki said.

A local official and farmers said improved access to water was helping apple growers in the mountainous region sell surplus produce to boost incomes, reducing pressure on men to migrate in search of work.

With an intellectually disabled daughter at home, and her house-builder husband frequently in India, Ms Sarki had found it difficult to find time for daily chores before the pump arrived.

The mother-of-three suffered a uterine prolapse and heart-related problems due to her workload and had to visit hospital often, she said.

But with water now available on their doorstep, the family’s land is producing more, and there is less financial pressure for Ms Sarki’s husband to go and work across the border.

For her and other women in Jumla district in Karnali province - the poorest in Nepal, and with less than a quarter of its land irrigated - the new solar water pump is helping make a tough life easier.

Installed about a year ago by development agency Practical Action, the pump was funded by the European Union and Jersey Overseas Aid, a state development agency, at an initial cost of 1.3 million rupees (Dh42,105).

About 14 solar panels produce enough power to pump 20,000 litres of water per day up from the Tila River, which is collected in storage tanks and distributed to fields as needed.

Menila Kharel, knowledge management coordinator at Practical Action, said the pump lifted water 90 metres, and served 70 households in Dhaulapani village, which has no electric power connection.

The UK-based charity has installed six solar pumps in different parts of Jumla - famous for its apples, walnuts and a rare local rice – as well as in neighbouring Mugu district.

The local government has decided to replicate the scheme on a larger scale in other parts of Jumla district after its success in Dhaulapani.

Gangadevi Upadhyay, deputy head of Tatopani rural municipality, said the local authority had started putting in a solar pump in Dagivada village, with an estimated budget of 10m rupees, which would benefit almost 300 households.

“This technology is especially beneficial to women in Jumla where they carry out most of the work in the fields,” she added.

Tika Ram Sharma, a senior officer for the Prime Minister’s Agriculture Modernisation Project, a 10-year government effort, said Jumla had plenty of sunshine nearly all year round, while the Tila is a perennial river.

Both renewable resources had gone untapped, but the solar-powered pump meant they were now being fully utilised, he added.

“The pump has proved beneficial at times when traditional methods such as harvesting snow are becoming impractical due to its erratic pattern,” added Mr Sharma.

According to a new assessment by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, future projections point to less snow cover and snow water across basins in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region as the climate warms.

Jumla received sufficient snowfall this year for the first time in nearly a decade, local farmers said.

Jumla was declared Nepal’s first organic district in 2007, but farmers were unable to make the most of its agricultural potential as they lacked a reliable source of irrigation.

Now they have started seeing yields rise since the water pump made irrigation easier.

“I used to harvest only what would be sufficient for our family consumption but after this scheme arrived, I have started making some money by selling apples and beans,” said Parwati Rawat, a farmer in Dhaulapani village.

The apples used to go pale due to insufficient water, but their quality and colour is now much better, she added.

Ms Rawat has started inter-cropping high-value vegetables in her apple orchard, instead of less thirsty crops like finger millet, which fetched lower prices.

Since the pump was installed, men are finding they need to leave the village less often to make a living, because families are growing enough produce to sell some of their harvest.

“My husband often used to go to India for work, but now he doesn’t need to go as frequently as before,” Ms Rawat said.

Her husband, Hasta Bahadur Rawat, said they earned a profit of up to 42,000 rupees in one season from selling apples.

Ms Upadhyay said many men from Jumla migrated during the winter, returning for the summer - but the rate of migration was slowly decreasing.

Firstly, local people were collecting medicinal plants and trading them on a larger scale, she said.

Secondly, many farmers in Jumla had started to embrace apple-growing as a business activity since they gained access to road transport in the past decade - and, more recently, electric power for irrigation.

“Solar pumps can help in taking apple farming to commercial scale more easily,” Ms Upadhyay added.

Across the border in coal-rich India, meanwhile, it is the falling price of renewables that is reshaping the country's energy outlook. The main reason coal may battle to fuel India's future energy needs is that it's simply becoming too expensive relative to energy alternatives such as wind and solar.

The coal sector's struggles are starting to show in data compiled by the Global Coal Plant Tracker. As of January, India had 36.12 gigawatts of coal capacity under construction and 220GW operating, according to the data.

The data also shows, however, a total of 491GW of planned capacity additions were cancelled in the past eight years, a fairly dramatic scale-back of India's coal-fired aspirations.

The government's National Electricity Plan assumes that 94GW of new coal-fired capacity will be added between the 2017/18 and the 2026/27 fiscal years.

But with only 22GW currently permitted, the pipeline of new plants would appear to be considerably lower than what the government is forecasting.

Coal won't disappear in India, with the existing fleet likely to generate power for at least two more decades.

But coal's share of generation in India is likely to slip, and power companies will have to do more to prepare for the increasingly likelihood that renewable energies are going to provide most of the new capacity in coming years.

It may well be that Nepal will steal a march on its giant neighbour in the shift to a renewable energy economy.

Published: March 7, 2019 08:00 AM


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