Climate Action

Solar irrigation can improve food security and prosperity, says UN agency

New research from the United Nations has shown the significant potential for solar powered irrigation systems to increase sustainable water use.

  • 08 May 2018
  • Adam Wentworth

New research from the the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has shown the significant potential for solar powered irrigation systems to increase sustainable water use.

The report highlights that solar powered irrigation systems are an affordable technology for small and large scale farmers in developing countries.

Solar irrigation also has the benefit of being climate-friendly and can help farmers adapt their agricultural practices to prepare for changing weather patterns.

However, the FAO warns that unless managed and regulated appropriately water use could be unsustainable. Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General commented: "The rapid expansion of more affordable solar-powered irrigation offers viable solutions that span the water-energy-food nexus, providing a great opportunity for small-holders to improve their livelihoods, economic prosperity and food security”

Photovoltaic panels have been experiencing sharp and consistent price drops, further reductions could result in a power revolution.

Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO's Land and Water Division, added: "The opportunity cheaper solar energy offers also increases the urgency of making sure appropriate water management and governance systems are in place.”

"We need to think strategically about how this technology can be used to encourage more sustainable use of groundwater resources to avoid risks such as wasteful water-use and over-abstraction of groundwater."

Approximately 20% of cultivated land is irrigated around the world and this contributes to roughly 40% of total food output; however, this figure is just 3% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Irrigation can boost the productivity of agriculture in numerous ways, such as allowing the growth of more and varied crops each year.

Both Sub-Saharan Africa and South America could benefit significantly from solar powered irrigation systems.

The FAO reports that solar powered irrigation systems could reduce greenhouse gas emissions for water pumping by 95% compared to alternatives fuelled by fossil fuels.

However, the FAO stressed the importance of managing and regulating solar powered irrigation systems as pumps could result in the unsustainable extraction of ground water as farmers may seek to expand their farming areas or switch to water intensive crops.

The report recommends that irrigation policies should be informed by water accounting for large areas and the different elements of the hydrological cycle.

Solar powered irrigation systems do offer tools to improve water governance with devices that provide real time updates on storage tank levels, pump speed and borehole water levels. The FAO urges that no water should be withdrawn without an appropriate water management plan.


Our sister organisation, the Aid & International Development Forum, is hosting its inaugural Africa Climate Smart Agriculture Summit on 15-16th May 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya. The summit will discuss innovations and challenges in CSA practices, increasing cross industry collaboration for CSA, financial investment for CSA and much more.