While there might not be consensus on global warming, the plight of the marginal farmer in India is such that monsoon forecasts create a sense of foreboding of the inevitable water stress.
The problem with water pumps
Much of this predicament is an effect of decades of ground water depletion. The excesses of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, and the uncontrolled use of diesel pumps and bore wells to pump ground water, are now coming back to bite us. India is still very much an agrarian economy, more than half of whose population depends on the land for its livelihood. These are the people facing the brunt of thoughtless groundwater extraction. According to CEEW, irrigation in India predominantly depends on groundwater pumped through 19 million electric, and about 9 million diesel, pumps. The Government of India has even subsidized agricultural pumps (kerosene/diesel/solar). Mid-sized farmers own them. Marginal or smallholder farmers either rent kerosene or diesel pumps or buy it in groups. Typically of higher capacity than actually required, these pumps tend to use more water than we need or should be pulling out. In areas of subsidized electricity, farmers pump groundwater at will, resulting in India as a nation drawing up more groundwater annually than China and America do combined. This unbridled exploitation of water by farmers has led groundwater levels to plummet dangerously. The coming solar revolution that promotes large scale Solar PV pumps might just exacerbate the issue.
The farmland situation
The states of Punjab and Haryana, the countries breadbaskets, are facing extreme water stress. They alone produce 50 percent of the national government’s rice supply and 85 percent of its wheat stocks. Both crops are highly water intensive! According to the World Resources Institute, with 54 percent of India’s total area facing high to extremely high stress, almost 600 million people are at higher risk of surface-water supply disruptions. At the same time, despite using 28 million electric and diesel pumps, 53 percent of the country’s land under cultivation remains dependent on the highly erratic Indian monsoons – these cultivators are mostly small and marginal farmers who constitute 85 percent of India’s farm holding. Even in areas with surface irrigation projects, the last mile connectivity to the farm has continued to stymie policy makers’ efforts - less than 40 percent of the land is cropped more than twice a year.
The freshwater sources
With excess withdrawals and poor watershed management, India’s perennial rivers are becoming seasonal. Many of the smaller rivers have already vanished. Rivers turn unruly during the monsoon and vanish once the rainy season is over. Conflicts within states over water are on the rise. With a rapidly urbanizing population of 1.35 billion to feed and only 3% of the global freshwater resources, sustainable irrigation solutions and watershed management practices are the key to the resilience of India’s farmers against climate change.
So, what do we do now?
With such a stark situation, the need of the hour is a number of solutions that are:
(b) sustainable, and
(c) available year-round.
Do we have any such solutions available? Last year we asked ourselves this question as we launched the call for applications for Sangam’s Emerging India Acceleration Program (EIAP). When the applications came in, we were pleasantly surprised and heartened to learn about three startups working on just this problem. Over the last year, we have had the opportunity to lear more about these companies and how their business models work to bring about sustainable changes.
In the space ahead, we introduce you to these innovators who are making developments that could make a significant impact to how we use water for cultivation.
Khethworks is led by Katherine Taylor and Victor Lesniewski, who are graduates of the MIT Tata Centre and the 2015 cohort of MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, and have been supported by the Tata Trust. They have devised a portable submersible DC solar pump which enables year-round cultivation and eliminates the recurring costs of fuel for the farmers. It is a small pump capable of discharging enough water to irrigate a 1 acre plot from shallow water sources.
Why we like them
Affordable and reliable irrigation gives farmers the opportunity to increase yields and to farm year-round, significantly increasing their income. Khethworks is penetrating the rural market with a pump that is specifically designed to meet the smallholder farmers’ water and irrigation needs. Hence, it reduces chances of depleting water tables through excess usage.
The Sangam team joined Victor on a field visit to a village in Keonjhar district of Odisha. Upon reaching the site, we saw a lady carrying the solar panel on her head to the field. The site had one Khethworks pump run by a women's self-help group (WSHG) of 11-12 women. The only water source was a 25 ft deep dug well which they used for irrigation. It was mid-March and quite hot.
We spoke with three of the members of the WSHG. They shared that earlier the WSHG took a loan to purchase a 1.5 Hp kerosene pump for about ₹10,500 (US$160) after a 50% subsidy. But high prices and erratic availability of kerosene in the market had reduced their income as they had to continue paying EMIs. What they hated most about the kerosene pump was that because of its high flow rates it used up a lot of water from the well, in a short span of time. By the time summer arrived, the water level went down to 2-4 ft. They could only irrigate about 0.10 - 0.12 acres of land in 2-3 hrs. Due to unavailability of water and kerosene, they could grow crops for just four months (October-January). After that, there was no irrigation or cultivation at all – highlighting the exact issue mentioned earlier in this blog, about excess water withdrawal.
This WSHG was introduced to the Khethworks pump in 2017. The flow of water is sufficient for their usage practices, yet it is not so much that it destroys small seedlings. To demonstrate the system to us, they dropped the pump in the well and connected it to the panels to draw out water. In the recent past, since acquiring the Khethworks pump, they have irrigated around 0.6 - 0.7 acres of land through Jan to March without losing excess water from the well. Last year their income was around ₹1,50,000 (US$2,300) which they think will increase this year due to a longer duration of agriculture activity.
Overall, the Khethworks team is doing a great job. Customers that we spoke to were content with the pump’s performance and its flow rate. For them it was easy to carry, install and operate as per need. What was interesting was that the women were able to operate the pump with very little training. They understood the value of conserving water during abundance. We were happy to see that the SHG was using the pump to its full potential and given a provision of better financing option, they were eager to acquire one more.
The founder of Thema EcoTech Pvt Ltd, Mr. K.S. Gopal, comes with more than two decades of experience in the field of agriculture and water. Previously, he led an NGO called The Centre for Environment Concerns (CEC) founded in 1984 by a group of activists and academics. With this experience, Mr. Gopal formed Thema Eco Tech in 2017 after joining the EIAP cohort. Combining the traditional wisdom of farmers with modern engineering, Thema developed SWAR (System of Water for Agricultural Rejuvenation), a low-cost sub surface irrigation system to optimize water efficiency and increase plant productivity. Retrofittable to drip irrigation systems, SWAR works on the basis of gravitational flow to distribute measured moisture at plant root zone. It uses only 1/3rd of the water used by drip irrigation, and further rations water to keep full grown fruit trees alive amidst droughts and prolonged heat waves in summer. It improves vegetative health, water tables and soil quality of the farm. Presently, with a dedicated team of four, Thema has over 4000 SWAR units installed in the Andhra and Karnataka regions of India. Based on user feedback, the product features are now being improved and integrated and these will soon be tested in the market.
Why we like them
The ability to grow and maintain higher value crops at lower costs with less water and no electricity is remarkable. The method increases farmer income and saves their revenue generating assets. The system conserves water in abundance for its use in scarcity. This low cost, easy-to-install system, can become a path breaker for farmers operating in drought prone regions.
Sangam along with the Thema team visited Puttaparthi, a town in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. The site had a mango farm of 5 acres owned by a farmer, Venkatnarayan. He had retrofitted SWAR system with his existing drip line in Apr-May 2017 using a government subsidy. There were 360 mango trees in his farm and each had one SWAR unit installed with it.
The entire farm was covered with healthy green mango trees. While discussing with Venkatnarayan, we found out that each tree required around 1,500 litres of water per year. Before SWAR was installed he used to get borewell water and tanker water during the hot summer months. The tanker cost him ₹750 (US$ 11.42) for 5,000 litres. If that wasn’t available, Venkatnarayan employed around 5-6 women labourers at ₹150-200 (US$2-3) per person to fetch water from the nearby check dam. It took 20 minutes to fetch 10 litres of water. Can you imagine how much time it took to get 5,000 litres? Heavy scarcity of water had forced him to halt his agriculture operations. As a result, many trees died. He instead invested his time in doing daily labour work which gave him maximum ₹300 (US$ 4.6) per day for 15-20 days a month.
Venkatnarayan mentioned that the SWAR system has provided a lot of value to his farm and he is happy with the system and its operation. It’s simple and easy to install. There was no weed growth which helped achieve better plant health. Earlier, before SWAR, the yield was only 10-12 kg per tree. Post SWAR installation, the yield increased to 15-20 kg per tree. Apart from yield, he was able to reduce requirement of tanker-supplied water . The saving was approximately ₹5,000 (US$ 76) per acre from the tanker. He earned an additional ₹20,000 (US$ 290) per acre. As per our discussion, he was willing to spend ₹14,000 (US$ 210) per acre for the SWAR system (drip existing). Other farmers nearby wanted to buy SWAR as they have seen how his life has changed after using this system.
From the site visit, it was revealed that Venkat was happy with the system and is also willing to pay for it. The system had not only provided better yield but also less water use which in turn generated higher income for him. It was clear from the discussion that it was SWAR, that had allowed him to continue farming all throughout the year and not the drip system. With better accessibility and better financing options, small plot farmers like Venkat or other marginal farmers can avail this technology to save their trees and improve their income. While large commercial farmers have enough money to get as much water (via tanker), as they want, they can instead opt to use SWAR to reduce their water usage and help maintain the water table in their region, while increasing yield and decreasing costs at the same time. Thus, their income levels can rise.
aQysta was founded by three engineers from the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands - Lennart, Fred and Pratap . Incubated by YES! Delft, the largest high-tech incubator in Europe, aQysta has developed an innovative hydro-powered irrigation pump, branded as the Barsha pump. The Barsha pump utilizes the energy from the flow of rivers and canals to pump water without requiring any fuel or electricity to be operated. Thus, it does not involve any operating expenses nor does it emit any polluting greenhouse gases. Presently, Barsha pump is able to pump to a maximum vertical height of 20m or a distance of up to 2 kilometres providing a maximum flow of 40,000 litres per day. Incubated in India by Sangam, aQysta is preparing to enter the Indian market through a pilot demonstration of their product. Gradually, aQysta plans to grow further in India, by selling their product to organizational customers and eventually to farmers through local authorized distributor(s).
Why we like them
With zero operating cost, the Barsha Pump reduces costs by 70%, with an expected payback time of around 2 years. Compared to solar pumps, Barsha Pumps can be up to 40% cheaper over their lifetime. It also enables the use of drip irrigation with 50% water savings and may increase yield by 2-5%, in areas where irrigation is rainfall dependent.
During Sangam’s visit to Nepal, where aQysta has over a 100 systems installed, we stopped at Manthali (approximately 130km from Kathmandu). There we met Yuvraj Shrestha, who had been using the Barsha pump since 2016. Yuvraj’s farm was located on the banks of the Tamakoshi river and he had leased 7 acres of land. He got the pump through a Nepal government subsidy scheme (~90%). Due to no fuel or carbon emission, locally it is known as the zero-energy pump.
Prior to Barsha pump, Yuvraj was using electric pumps till 2016. The monthly energy expenditure was around NPR 9,000 (US$ 85). The reason for shifting to zero energy pump was the unreliable nature of electricity. Since irrigation was not possible without pumps, he had to incur losses. His income was around NPR 4,00,000 –6,40,000 (US$ 4,500 - 6,000) per annum.
Presently Yuvraj has employed three daily wage labourers on his farm. There is no scarcity of water in the farm now and, according to Yuvraj, the Barsha Pump provides enough water for irrigation. His income has now increased to NPR 20,00,000 - 25,00,000 (US$ 18,200 - 23,000) per annum. This improvement is due to
a) reliable water from the Barsha pump
b) increase in farming land, and
c) no additional fuel cost.
Yuvraj's own little initiatives, like placing the pump in the region of the river of higher head (pressure) during decreasing water level in summer, have made him a champion in his own way. Apart from growing vegetables as per market demand, he has tied up with local police and army barracks to supply his produce. Presently he supplies vegetables worth NPR 12,00,000-15,00,000 (US$ 11,300 - 14,000) per annum. Yuvraj is now planning to get another Barsha Pump for his own farm in his native village. He understands the value of Barsha Pump and is willing to spend 25% of his revenue on irrigation. Being entrepreneurial by nature, he has also influenced farmers from nearby villages to adopt the Barsha Pump.
Sangam believes commercial farmers like Yuvraj can be instrumental in propagating Barsha pump and show its value to other commercial farmers or a group of small plot farmers. Every farmer that utilizes the Barsha pump to its full potential to improve his income incentivizes other farmers to take the plunge.