“Earlier, most farmers only grew two crops; now, everyone grows three crops yearly.”
India’s government provides subsidies for groundwater pumping to ensure farmers could irrigate their crops and feed their families. More reliable and cheaper than digging irrigation canals, pumping quickly became the primary means of irrigation across the country. But over time, the scale of pumping has placed enormous strain on the country’s finances – and its climate impact. Every year, 10% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions come from diesel-powered groundwater extraction, which the government spends nearly $15 billion to subsidize. And it’s only getting costlier – as water levels drop, more energy is required to pump water above ground.
At the center of this economic and environmental crisis are smallholder farmers like Pravin bhai Parmar from India’s Dhundi village. In 2015, 49 of 50 irrigation wells in Dhundi had diesel pumps, but using diesel came at a high financial and environmental cost. Recognizing this compounding challenge, in 2016 CGIAR researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) partnered with Pravin bhai Parmar and five other farmers to pilot an innovative way to implement solar-powered water pumps. In addition to using solar to power their pumps, the Dhundi Solar Cooperative would sell surplus energy to the local electricity provider, thus creating an incentive to use water and energy sparingly.
This motivation proved to be quite successful – over the first 7 years, farmers pumped less water and sold the surplus for nearly ₹20,00,000 (roughly $24,000). Using solar-powered pumps has also given farmers the confidence to cultivate crops in all seasons. “Earlier, most farmers only grew two crops; now, everyone grows three crops yearly”, explains Pravin bhai Parmar, who is now the secretary of the Dhundi Solar Cooperative.
The Dhundi model offers farmers uninterrupted, reliable, and free-of-cost solar power with an opportunity for additional income, relieves the government of crippling subsidies while eliminating a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Already India is looking to apply this approach to other parts of the country – and further scaling could have significant impact in reducing emissions and improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers around the world.