The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Solar energy for groundwater pumping in Kebili Region (Tunisia) and beyond: the challenges ahead
Because groundwater is abstracted illegally, without permits, farmers receive no subsidies and must shoulder the full investment cost. Solar energy adoption is affected by the availability of equipment in local markets, its capital costs that are typically higher than equivalent diesel-based solutions, and dependence on solar radiation levels. As a result, water is not always available on demand, unless the power generated is stored in batteries or lifted water is kept in a storage reservoir. Despite these and other constraints, the anarchical expansion trend continues unabated and shows no sign of levelling-off as 1) investment costs are dropping, 2) the costs of fuel and electricity keep soaring, and 3) the increasing number of solar panel companies and the growing competition lead some of these companies to offer extended payment facilities to farmers. According to our interviewees, the cost of installation of solar panels decreased by almost 50% between 2015 and 2020.
Some farmers have expressed interest in connecting to the public grid, seeing potential benefits in combining solar energy and grid power, notably the possibility of pumping and irrigating at night, and a more rational use of groundwater. As one farmer mentioned: "If we had been authorised to equip our boreholes with electricity, we could have avoided the current development of solar irrigation systems that leads to a more intensified use of groundwater resources." Connecting farmers to the public electricity grid could also allow them to sell solar energy when they do not need it, avoiding over pumping and enhancing the national production of electricity. This did not yet happen because of technical issues (panels are scattered) and the lack of initiatives by the public electricity company to support such connections.
The benefits and challenges related to the expansion of solar panels for irrigation are now well-identified in many countries, and several initiatives have taken place to address them (Hartung and Pluschke, 2018). For instance, in India, recent scholarship has explored the benefits of, and constraints to, connecting solar water pumping systems to the grid (Kumar et al., 2014; Shah et al., 2018; Mantri et al., 2020). This issue has been discussed in a recent post of the Dissensus Forum. Farmers connect their solar irrigation pumps to the grid to sell surplus electricity, gaining an additional source of income and a greater economic return on solar investments.
In contrast, in North Africa, discussions are yet to start about how to frame the expansion of solar panels within a broader perspective, one which would enable limiting risks (especially groundwater depletion) and tapping opportunities (such as "green" production of energy). This would require connections between actors of the agriculture and water sector on the one hand, and of energy on the other hand. Addressing groundwater depletion in North Africa has been found to need: I) better legal and regulatory frameworks (Hartung and Pluschke, 2018) and better implementation of these frameworks; 2) better knowledge of irrigation systems, practices and dynamics of aquifers; and 3) the building of coalitions of actors (Faysse et al., 2011; Kuper et al., 2016). The growing use of solar panels for irrigation requires broadening actions along these three axes but considering the whole agriculture-water-energy nexus. This is urgently needed, as the development of solar panels is likely to expand to all "groundwater economies" in North Africa in coming years.
However, over the past 20 years, initiatives to avert groundwater depletion in this region havebeen rare and often ineffective, and except for a few cases of partial success, fragile. This raises two kinds of questions. First, why did initiatives to face the new challenges related to the expansion of solar panels take place in South Asia but not in North Africa, and what can be learned from the former that would be of interest to develop initiatives in the latter? More generally, is the growing use of solar panels for irrigation in North Africa merely compounding groundwater crises that are now proving to be inescapable given prevailing political economies? Or are there signs that the future can be different from the past, i.e., that initiatives to face groundwater depletion (including the growing use of solar energy) in North Africa can be more than "too little, too late"?
Insaf Mekki, Intissar Ferchichi and Nicolas Faysse
Faysse, N., Hartani, T., Frija, A., Tazekrit, I., Zairi, C. and Challouf, A. 2011. Agricultural use of groundwater and management initiatives in the Maghreb: challenges and opportunities for sustainable aquifer exploitation. AFDB Economic Brief, 1-24.
Hartung, H. and Pluschke, L. 2018. The benefits and risks of solar powered irrigation. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Kumar, D., Bassi, N., Narayanamoorthy, A., Sivamohan, M.V.K.2014. The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus. Lessons from India for development. New York: Routledge.
Kuper, M., Faysse, N., Hammani, A., Hartani, T., Marlet, S., Hamamouche, M. F. and Ameur, F. 2016. Liberation or anarchy? The Janus nature of groundwater use on North Africa's new irrigation frontiers. In Integrated groundwater management (pp. 583-615). Springer, Cham.
Mantri, S. R., Kasibhatla, R. S. and Chennapragada, V. K. B. 2020. Grid-connected vs. off-grid solar water pumping systems for agriculture in India: A comparative study. Energy Sources, Part A: Recovery, Utilization, and Environmental Effects, 1-15.
Mekki, I., Ferchichi, I., Taoujouti, N., Faysse, N. and Zaïri, A. A. 2021. Analyse de l'extension des palmeraies oasiennes et de son impact sur les ressources en eau souterraine dans la région de Kébili, sud-ouest de la Tunisie. Annales de l'INRGREF (2021), 22, 123-143.
Shah, T. 2009. Taming the anarchy: Groundwater governance in South Asia. New York: Routledge.
Shah, T., Rajan, A., Rai, G. P., Verma, S. and Durga, N. 2018. Solar pumps and South Asia's energy-groundwater nexus: exploring implications and reimagining its future. Environmental Research Letters, 13(11), 115003.
Photo credit: Douz, Tunisia (by Marcel Kupper)
One of the first things I learned, In graduate school at Penn State was the above acronym. It applies, in time to EVERYTHING. [b] There Aint No Such The As A Free Lunch[ Free electrical power creates a perpetual demand for groundwater. Southern Tunisia thousands of square kilometers of sand an longitudinal dunes exist and nothing is more pleasant than the sound of gurgling water from a well. With free power wells gurgle perpetually and the groundwater supplies dwindle. The situation leads to the proof of of the Le Chatlier Principle or the Humpty Dumpty Principle to the less educated. When Humpty Dumpy fell off the wall, all the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again. Those who choose to ignore these lessons are on an Idiot's Journey to oblivion. As such we should not spend one Farthing trying to save them. I once was on a groundwater development project in the Kasserine Pass. I observed an DTH Ingersoll Rand TH-150, top drive rig drilling a 900 foot well. First the Regie Sondage set up a camp that included a school, housing, and a communal cafeteria. The well took six months to drill. I told Rida Feki, Head of the Central Tunisian Development Authority that we drilled such a hole in several days. He did not believe me and traveled to New Mexico where I showed him the sale drilling rig with a crew of two making hole like a red hot knife through a frozen stick of butter. Point being, wasted resources by the Regie Sondage was so bad that Feki requested his own drilling rig.
Solar energy is known to lead to further abstraction of groundwater. Solar energy is not free. It requires huge investments. But when private companies are making substantial benefits from installing new "small plants" they offer payments through installments. This is an incentive for farmers to buy the PV panels.
The Electricity Utility STEG is buying electricity from large companies and refuses to buy from individuals and small plants. While if we want to protect the aquifer, or at east to protect the existing Oases the ideal solution is to encourage land owners to install PV solar panels and produce electricity and generate a sustainable income without using the groundwater. Sources of income other than farming and irrigation have to be encouraged even if this would entail some government support through low interest rate or interest-free credits to undertake such investments. Tunisia is lagging behind in terms of energy transition and involving land owners from the Southern part in such a transition is a win-win strategy for the local people and the government. The existing Oases have to be protected as they have senior water rights and have undertaken their investments long ago. Date palms take very long time to enter in production. So to conclude STEG need to introduce the Feed-in Tariff the soonest and Ministry of Agriculture should implement the law as to not allow digging new wells. Without these two policies expect the worse.
The authors are to be congratulated for an objective commentary on the unfolding disaster of combining solar power with irrigation from groundwater. The literal race to the bottom that making the marginal cost of water zero is exactly what the recent promotion of "Farmer Led irrigation" by institutions that should know better will lead to.
When governments are able to control access to water, these innovations are great--but the list of places where controls are in place is extremely limited: none in India, some in China, complete in Israel and Nebraska, pending in California... elsewhere??
The review of the India efforts under SPaRC concluded that the most important benefit (US$50 billion proposed to be spent subsidising the program) was the reduction in greenhouse gases from the substitution of solar power for conventional generation (with the cost being borne by accelerated aquifer depletion). .
I begin to conclude that in water resources management, the "quantity" game is lost, and that the most useful investments will be in "quality" protection.
Degradation of aquifers in many “breadbaskets” is a growing existential threat to food production and indeed global food security. This post on the challenges posed by the unregulated spread of solar pump irrigation in southern Tunisia, and a previous one on the “SPaRC” model in India raise critically important issues. In the SPaRC (Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop) model, the solar pump installation is linked to the electric grid, with the capacity to sell excess power to the grid. The hypothesis is that farmers will be incentivized to minimize pumping, as selling power will be more profitable than running pumps. Insaf Mekki and colleagues suggest that Tunisia and indeed north African countries in general have been slow to develop initiatives to address aquifer depletion, for example by considering the Indian SPaRC model. I want to make several observations.
First, I suggest the major reasons why South Asia has been able to develop initiatives to address the problem is that the challenge of depleting aquifers has been observed for several decades, farmers in these regions have a powerful political voice, and the team implementing the research through the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has a very strong reputation and is politically well-connected. None of these points characterizes Tunisia.
Second, I think it is important that we not condemn all solar pump irrigation as a villain to be contained and controlled in all places. One reason is that over-pumping occurs despite the source of power – diesel, electric grid, or solar. Many countries, including India, subsidize electric power for farmers – again reflecting their political power. Another important point is that there are conditions under which encouraging high levels of pumping is highly productive and sustainable.
Two recent papers on the “Bangladesh Water Machine” make this point: in situations where substantial monsoon rains fully recharge the aquifer, high levels of pumping for crop production during the dry season is profitable and sustainable (1,2). Bangladesh achieved full food self-sufficiency by allowing unlimited import of small diesel pumps. The challenge now is to replace these with solar pumps to reduce both the very large import and subsidy costs for fuel and the production of greenhouse gases.
Finally, while the authors of this post seem to endorse considering something like the SPaRC model, in which the electric grid would purchase power from solar farmers, the jury is still out on whether this model will actually result in sustainability of the aquifer. Much depends on the price paid to farmers for power. As far as I am aware, there has not yet been any independent evaluation of the impacts of this model where it is being tried in India.
The challenge of balancing sustainable use of groundwater with the importance of maintaining and even increasing food production will remain with us for a long time.
1 Mukherji, A. 2022. The “water machine” of Bengal: A data-driven and policy-supported strategic use of aquifers for irrigation is needed to maximize their benefits. Science 377, 1258-1259.
2 Shamsudduha et al. 2022. The Bengal Water Machine: Quantified freshwater capture in Bangladesh. Science. 377, 1315–1319.
I'm aware of Israeli discussions over conversion of "fossil water" beneath the Sinai Desert to physical capital but no recent follow-up. The attached 2007 report concludes "The simulation results show that neither present nor planned pumping schemes for the Nefzawa oases region are sustainable"
Mounira Zammouri & Tobias Siegfried & Tobias El-Fahem & Samiha Kriâa & Wolfgang Kinzelbach 2007
Indeed, in Kebili Region, applying the SPARC model may not likely change much, alone, groundwater depletion patterns. Groundwater depletion is driven both by the continuous expansion of palm groves in illegal extensions and by inefficient use of irrigation water, especially in relation to solar energy. Implementation of the SPARC model could actually be part of a broader negotiation between public authorities and groups of farmers in extensions. The key element of the negotiation could be that farmers within a specific area could opt for engaging in more sustainable water use, meaning better irrigation practices and not planting new palm trees. In exchange, the state could legalize the status of existing palm groves within this area. This would enable farmers to get access to subsidies for agricultural production. This would also make it possible for farmers to connect their pump (and thus their solar panels) to the electric grid, and in that way enabling a SPARC system, but also enabling farmers to irrigate by night, as currently very few farmers have batteries. This is of interest because, in an oasian context, irrigation by night is more relevant.
In the frame of the Massire project, three groups of farmers having land in various types of extensions (close to traditional oases, or further away) were identified that were willing to engage in discussions around these terms with public administrations. They were interested not only for being able to get subsidies, but also because they were conscious of depletion patterns and of the increasing costs of deepening boreholes. Thus, while the state in Tunisia has currently probably not sufficient capacities to enforce rules to control palm grove extensions and solar panel use in all extensions located in Kebili Region, in the short term there is room for engaging in discussion with some groups of farmers around win-win agreements.
However, first there is currently no official framework for enabling such discussion. A legalization process focusing on extensions located in the periphery of traditional oases was initiated in 2017 but did not try to link this process with a discussion on improved water management (and anyway this process is stalled in 2022). Second, the public national electric company has shown quite lukewarm interest in trying to set up SPARC types of solution. It would be of much interest to define a broad strategy that encompasses agricultural, energy and water issues in Kebili Region and that lets farmers and public administrations at the local level negotiate and experiment such type of agreement.
It would be hard to discard the idea that solar energy has a role to play in the groundwater economy, notably in the MENA region. But it would also be unreasonable to minimize its ominous likely consequences in terms of sustainability. Solar groundwater pumping for irrigation has all what is needed to become the next bad 'good idea', next to drip irrigation: it has a lot of advantages and benefits for the individual farmers, alleviates rural poverty, but its combination with the proven state incapacity to control groundwater abstraction is very worrying.
In its report on solar pumping FAO (2018) stressed that "legal and regulatory frameworks for groundwater abstraction have often been inadequate and their application has proven problematic". As solar panels mushroom in the region this warning is likely to remain dead letter. The consequences of the spread of this -generally subsidized- technology need to be urgently documented. What do colleagues from the MENA region have to say about that?
Hartung, H. and Pluschke, L. 2018. The benefits and risks of solar-powered irrigation - a global overview. FAO.
Molle, F. and Closas, A. 2020. Why is state-centered groundwater governance largely ineffective? A review. WIREs Water 7(1).
Shortly after I wrote the above comment landed on my screen press releases about the ending GEF-funded and UNDP-managed project on solar pumping in Morocco (PSIA-GEF). Self-congratulating statements about the way this "very satisfactory" project promoted "energy efficiency" (with no untimely reference to the 'nexus'), and funded 60.000 pumps, "contributing to the implementation of several Sustainable Development Goals related to the preservation of water resources" (my emphasis). Subsidized solar systems clearly brought benefits to farmers in terms of reduced pumping costs. The final assessment report is not yet available (it seems), but it will be interesting to see how much space it devotes to the "sustainability" of water resources.
https://www.agrimaroc.ma/irrigation-le-potentiel-solaire-du-maroc-comme-opportunite/ (see English Google translation: https://www-agrimaroc-ma.translate.goog/irrigation-le-potentiel-solaire-du-maroc-comme-opportunite/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en)
The CGIAR Water Land and Ecosystems program commissioned an evaluation of the research promoting solar irrigation in India, including the system for purchase of power by the grid. It too focused entirely on the benefits to farmers and reduction of GHGs, all true but missing the question of the impact on groundwater. Now a former IWMI economist now at the World Bank has published a paper "Positive incentives for managing groundwater in the presence of informal water markets: perspectives from India" which raises strong doubts about whether such positive incentives will really help make groundwater management sustainable. The paper advocates further research on this topic.
Many thanks for all of you for your valuable comments and contribution to this discussion.
In order to assess the impacts of the shift to solar panels as a source of energy for irrigation, there is a need for more complete groundwater abstraction data, which is often poor and mostly fragmentary. For instance, in Kebili region datasets are restricted to official records, they do not reflect uncontrolled abstractions from illicit wells. Moreover, finding solutions will require innovativeness, as standard solutions to reduce abstraction, which are already difficult to implement, may be even more once solar panels are introduced.
All the comments and suggestions shared here will help shape future work on this theme within Massire project. They are also relevant to other regions of the world, where groundwater levels are declining, but overlooked in data and policy.