SEATTLE, Washington — Climate change hits low-income countries the hardest. Rainfall has become less reliable, leading to extreme droughts, and growing seasons have shortened. Particularly in regions that may already struggle with unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and political instability, food security and income suffer as a result of climatic changes. Water scarcity may also contribute to tension between people.
In Sudan, for example, 12 million hectares of agricultural land are typically irrigated by rain. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has partnered with the Canadian government to provide solar-powered water pumps to farmers in Sudan and several other low-income countries. The pumps allow agriculturalists to maintain and improve productivity even in the midst of climate change. And because the pumps rely on sustainable energy, they are also environmentally friendly.
Solar power also makes the pumps attractive because many potential users lack electricity. In just Niger, for example, 90 percent of the rural population does not have access to electricity. Solar pumps have minimal operating costs, compared to power generators that require diesel or gasoline to run. In Morocco, switching to solar pumps could save farmers as much as two-thirds of their fuel costs. Although the pumps run only during the day, they break down very rarely, and repairs are typically simple. The pumps can last for 25 years, and there is no risk of fuel spills.
The program run by the UNDP is not the only initiative that aims to make solar pumps more widely available. Paul Polak Enterprises has been working to make solar pumps more affordable through simple fixes like adding mirrors to concentrate sunlight on solar panels, and using the water pulled up by the pumps to cool down the solar cells.
The company proposes that solar-powered water pumps and micro-irrigation systems be offered to small farmers on credit. Farmers could then use their pumps to grow a variety of off-season crops to improve food security, maximize earnings, and pay off the leases.
The Indian government also subsidizes solar pumps. Diesel generators are still much more common than solar pumps in India, with 19 million diesel engines used for irrigation. Even so, solar pumps are catching on, and more than 20,000 are in use.
Solar-powered water pumps have proved invaluable for providing a path out of poverty, particularly for women working in India’s Gujarat salt flats. For those who harvest salt, diesel makes up 70 percent of operating costs. One salt worker, named Divuben Rathod, said that since she began to use a solar water pump, her profits had doubled, she could afford to send her children to school, and she no longer had to borrow money for diesel at the beginning of the salt harvesting season.
Another salt worker said that the pumps required less babysitting because they started automatically at sunrise, and stopped at sunset. As a result, she is free to take up other work, like tailoring, to further improve finances.
The salt workers obtained their solar water pumps on credit through a partnership between the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL), the World Bank, and the company Sun Edison.
The chief executive of SE4ALL summarized the importance of the initiative, and of energy alternatives in general, in a conversation with the Natural Resources Defense Council: “Energy issues are central to sustainable development. They are about equity and fairness. Access to sustainable energy can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, and life and death. Energy and access to energy services are directly linked to the economic and social wellbeing of women.”
– Madeline Reding