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Solar-powered pumps changing people’s lives in drought-prone areas

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Chorn Channa and her friend stand in a chili pepper field that is irrigated with a large-scale solar water pump in Prek Norin community, Battambang province. UNDP

Solar-powered pumps changing people’s lives in drought-prone areas

Solar-powered water pumps have been installed in three drought-prone districts – two in Kampong Thom province and one in Battambang. The project aims to provide farmers with an affordable and sustainable alternative to diesel-powered pumps.

The project is a collaboration between People in Need (PIN), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“The use of solar energy means people do not need to be present the whole time – the pumps operate automatically from 8am to 5pm every day,” explained PIN project manager Chen Cheth.

“Water is pumped from a river and then into canals that can irrigate 590ha of rice fields and plantations,” he told The Post.

Cheth said the project is being implemented in partnership with two private companies – Solar Green Energy Cambodia (SOGE) and EGE Cambodia Energy Solutions – which are responsible for installing the solar pumps in Kampong Svay, Stung Sen, and Ek Phnom districts.

The systems, which generate the equivalent of more than 20 horsepower, are being installed in three Tonle Sap floodplain communities that often experience drought, added Va Vuthy, a policy specialist with the UNDP.

As the solar pumps have only been in operation for a few months, he found it difficult to assess their effectiveness. However, he expressed high confidence in the project, given that it is run and managed by two expert solar companies.

“We have been trying smaller-scale projects for a number of years, but they tend to be too small to meet the demand of farmers,” he said.

Vuthy said that thanks to the availability of irrigation during the dry season, farmers are able to plant rice for a second season or grow other crops like watermelon or chilli peppers.

“Additionally, the constant water supply in the canals has created a favourable environment for fish and water birds, allowing farmers to engage in subsistence fishing and access an extra source of protein,” he added.

“In the past, farmers relied on diesel-powered water pumps to irrigate their fields. However, the high cost of diesel and the environmental impact of the engines made it difficult for farmers to compete in the market,” he said.

Cheth, who is overseeing the project, pointed out that in addition, diesel pumps required people to stand by to operate them.

“They also require more maintenance and need to be regularly moved from one location to another,” he said.

The solar-powered water pumps produce no noise and emit no harmful smoke, unlike their diesel-powered counterparts.

“The project offers a sustainable solution to their problems. The use of solar energy is not only more affordable, but also has a positive impact on the environment. Our three sites benefit around 230 households,” he said.

Chiv Kim-On, commune chief and head of O’Kanthor cooperative in Stung Sen town, said the solar pumps provide irrigation benefits to 120ha to 150ha of land, benefiting more than 100 households in his district.

“Using solar energy to pump water into the canals has many benefits and does not cost much,” he added.

Cheth explained that farmers paid limited fees for using the service, making them more competitive because they pay lower costs and have more opportunity to take on other work.

“Previously, irrigation cost them up to $105 per ha, but now they pay $80 to $85 per season for the same hectare,” he said.

He said the farmers will continue to pay for the first six years of the project, while his organisation’s private partners recoup their costs. In year 7, the entire project will be handed over to the community.

Kim-On did highlight that the solar pumps were not entirely perfect, however.

“One of the installations was blown down by high winds, damaging around 15 solar panels,” he said.

He also mentioned that the nearest river was drying up, making it difficult for the pumps to meet demand for water usage.

“The water level in the Stung Sen River is very low at present, leaving a lot of sand. The solar pumps are not as powerful as the diesel ones, so they cannot draw water from as deep,” he said.

“Due to complaints from farmers, we are preparing to install several diesel pumps, but if there is no rain by early May, some people’s crops will certainly suffer,” he warned.

Vuthy acknowledged that the lack of water resources was beyond what his organisation could help with, owing to a combination of climate change, dry months, and extreme heat.

“However, we plan to implement similar projects in other locations, although they have not yet been identified,” he said.

“The private-public investment model works well, and we think we will use it to implement from two to four similar projects,” he concluded.


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