Earlier this year, the Ministry of Irrigation and Lowlands in Ethiopia announced that it will be ending imports of fossil fuel powered water pumps. Instead there will be a focus on green energy options, including solar.
This ban on fossil fuel powered water pumps has the potential to cause a seismic shift in the sustainability of farming across the country – at least from an irrigation point of view.
So why have we not heard more about it?
It is not yet clear how and when this ban will be implemented, how many irrigation projects currently use fuel powered water pumps and what future Government projects are to be expected. In fact, there has been very little news shared following the initial announcements in May this year.
We held off writing this blog whilst eagerly waiting for updates, but six months on from the initial announcements and nearing the end of the year, we’re tired of waiting! So here is what we know so far…
The current status of irrigation in Ethiopia
It is incredibly difficult to get an accurate picture of what is going on in Ethiopia regarding irrigation. We have uncovered several conflicting reports which attempt to quantify the amount of land irrigated and the numbers of pumps used. These reports put the irrigated land area somewhere between 5% and 12% of potentially irrigable areas.
Traditional, rainfed agriculture, remains the dominant form of farming at around 60%. Rainfall is unreliable and locks the country into low productivity, so as more affordable water pumps are becoming available, farms are gradually adopting mechanised irrigation.
According to Government statistics for 2004 – 2010 around 800,000 motor pumps were imported into the country, and recently there has been talk of irrigation projects across the country. In May this year, Minister Aisha Mohammed reported that ‘in the last nine months 1,800 irrigation projects have been completed’ (report from the Addis Standard News).
And it is not only a gradual increase in motor pumps that is occurring, renewables get a look in too. The first uptake of solar water pumps in the country was reported in 2016 when the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) contributed to a pilot project (Livestock and Irrigation Value chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES)). However, as of October 2020, there were reportedly only around 1,000 solar pumps in operation in the country.
Meeting the irrigation potential with fuel pumps…
As mentioned above, there have been imports of hundreds of thousands of fuel pumps into the country. However, fuel powered pumps come with several negatives for farmers and the country alike.
Fossil fuel powered pumps generate significant greenhouse gas emissions. With pumps using up to 1 litre of fuel per hour of pumping (equating to approximately 2.3 Kg of CO2 per hour of using a petrol pump). There is also potential for fuel or oil spills on farmland, noise pollution and the overuse of water, as fuel pumps tend to come with high flow rates.
Ethiopia faces more challenges than other countries with obtaining fuel too, there are regular severe fuel shortages due to distribution challenges. Foreign exchange plays an important part here as Ethiopia is not an oil producing nation, but rather it relies on costly imports. As demand for fuel increases this causes further depletion of limited foreign currency reserves.
Interestingly, there are currently huge subsidies and tax exemptions on fuel which makes it one of the cheapest places to buy fuel in the world. But rather than make it a no-brainer for powering machinery, it’s suggested that the price differential between Ethiopia and neighbouring countries has caused a rather profitable fuel smuggling problem, further reducing supply.
For individuals who are able to obtain fuel for their pumps the costs come thick and fast. Once the machine has been purchased, farmers are locked into recurring fuel costs [why your petrol pump costs so much], and if it becomes unavailable, a lack of irrigation can lead to the huge financial burden of lost crops.
This doesn’t sound practicable, especially for a country leading climate talks and with a goal to be a middle-income country by 2030.
Meeting the irrigation potential with renewables…
Ethiopia is one of the most promising markets for renewables in Africa;
- There is an average of 2,439 hours of sunlight per year
- Vast water reserves for hydropower
- The potential to generate over 1.3 million megawatts of wind power (Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation).
As a country it has the option to invest in large-scale renewable energy projects as well as promoting small-scale individual systems. Whilst large-scale connected grid systems will make the electrification of many of Ethiopia’s industries possible, small-scale installations will be essential for powering up rural areas.
This is where solar really comes into its own. An Africa Solar Water Pump Market forecast predicts that Ethiopia could be the second largest market for solar pumps in Africa.
Solar pumps for irrigation, are simple machines which convert solar energy into electricity via a photovoltaic (PV) panel. They are often highly efficient and use small solar panels to pump water when the sun is out.
The benefits of solar for irrigation…
The transition to using solar energy for pumping water will come with many benefits.
A lifecycle assessment by GIZ for FAO in 2018 deduced that solar irrigation can potentially reduce the CO2 emissions per energy unit of water pumping by 97-98% compared with diesel pumps.
As solar does not burn a fuel or require oiling there is no smoke fumes and zero potential of spills when refuelling. This leads to reduced air, water and land pollution, which is important for sustainability on rural farms. It’s a win-win-win.
Once solar pump equipment has been purchased, farmers can enjoy the benefits of free solar energy. This means no more recurring and rising fuel costs which can ruin a farming season.
Lower flow rates, associated with solar pumps, also positively impact irrigation schedules, leading to increased irrigation efficiency with plants receiving smaller volumes of water more regularly which is beneficial for quality crop growth and productivity. Higher productivity = higher profits. Another win-win!
Increased crop growth and productivity, as well as no longer being trapped into paying for fuel, means that farmers can be more sure of growth throughout the year. This leads to improved food security, especially in the dry seasons.
Why hasn’t it taken off yet?
It’s frustrating to see that demand and potential are not matching up.
From our experience, severe challenges with obtaining foreign exchange, and then a lack of funding for end-users to purchase solar pumps have compounded to halt market growth. It is clear that something does need to change and this policy could be a big step in the right direction.
Now they’ve announced a transition, what challenges do the Government have to overcome?
The Government will want to see the country grow whilst also managing the transition to new technologies and ways of farming. This is no mean feat.
Importing solar pumps
Foreign exchange is still a problem and not one that’s going away any time soon. Most companies selling solar water pumps are not in Ethiopia, so they need to be imported. Battling to get decent exchange rates and navigating customs challenges is not easy. This is likely to slow progress and is something the Government must work to improve, unless they are planning to increase manufacturing capabilities within the country…
Cost of purchasing pumps
Once pumps have landed in the country, farmers need to be able to buy them. Solar water pumps currently have higher upfront costs than fuel pumps, and certainly more than waiting for the rain. One of the main challenges is how to make renewable energy solutions affordable to the masses.
This could be through the Government offering incentives, irrigation schemes or ensuring that low cost (high quality) products are encouraged. It’s clear that for there to be a universal shift across the whole country, something will need to be done. Alongside the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.
There will need to be a holistic approach of training people to install, maintain and use solar pumps efficiently. Pumps which are being imported also need to be of good quality and work effectively to encourage their long term use.
We need more bold sustainability commitments. It’s great that Ethiopia has stepped up and made this announcement and made a positive step towards meeting their impressive sustainability goals.
We will be looking out for further updates on the implementation of this ban. As a solar pump manufacturer, we have seen a steady uptick in companies and farmers from Ethiopia approaching us about solar water pumps. This is great news, as solar pumps are increasingly on people’s radar.
It is likely that other African countries are keeping an eye on Ethiopia for how this transition goes. A similar situation occurred in the gradual ban of plastic bags across the continent. So we are hopeful that it is just the beginning of more countries taking national steps to encourage sustainability…
…Watch this space!