CITY OF SAN FERNANDO -- The excessive groundwater extraction may soon be lessened as the Department of Agriculture (DA) has started its solar-powered irrigation projects in different areas of the country, harnessing both surface water sources and solar energy, and also offsetting the use of harmful fossil fuels and the need to extract water from underground water sources.

A pet initiative of the Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, the program draws inspiration from solar-powered systems used by farmers in other countries.

First pilot tested in M’lang, North Cotabato, the project is now being implanted in two areas in Central Luzon—the country’s rice granary region.

“The Philippines is blessed with so many rivers, tributaries, lakes and almost six months of rain, not to mention typhoons which bring rain and even floods, every year. Yet, 120 years after the Department of Agriculture was created in 1898, the country only has 1.2-million hectares of rice fields currently serviced by irrigation systems,” Piñol said.

Piñol added that out of 3.9-million rice farms, only 1.2 million are served by operational irrigation systems implemented by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA).

In 2016, the NIA had only irrigated 10,000 hectares of rice areas.

The remaining 2.7-million hectares are rain-fed areas producing only once a year, Piñol added. With the country’s growth rate of 1.9 percent each year, more farms have to produce more food to feed the growing population.

“At this population growth rate, the country has to irrigate an additional 80,000 hectares every year to feed the new generation of Filipinos. NIA could only irrigate 30,000 hectares which produces an average of 76,050,000 kilos,” Piñol added.

Game changer

The solar-powered systems utilize open water sources like lakes, rivers, streams and even creeks. Man-made small water impounding systems could also be used as water sources. Sucking water out of open water sources means less use of energy compared to underground water extraction. And less energy needed means even lesser operational cost.

The DA’s prototype for a solar-powered irrigation system has the capacity to pump an average volume of 1,000 cubic meters in the span of 6-8 hours period. Enough to meet the water needs of a 10-hectare land during a single irrigation cycle.

Farmlands without irrigation systems usually derive water from underground aquifers. Water is pumped out by diesel or gas engines using shallow tube wells. One hectare of land usually takes 12 to 16 hours to irrigate using this system. This means that 32 liters of fuel (P1,216) per irrigation cycle would be needed for one hectare. Fuel used for farm machineries and engines of irrigation systems contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

But with the solar-powered irrigation system, the fuel cost is removed from the equation and valuable groundwater will no longer be extracted just for irrigation.

During summer months, farmers usually irrigate their farms every other day. With solar-powered irrigation, water could be accessed anytime during the dry months due to abundance of sunlight that power the solar panels.

The system is perfect for most parts of the country with Type 1 climate which is characterized by distinct wet and dry seasons. This means abundant rain during the monsoon season and plenty of sunlight in the summer months.

“It will also minimize the destruction of the environment and the construction of huge dams which happen in the development of huge irrigation systems, not to mention the long period of time needed to complete a huge irrigation system,” Piñol said.

Farming impact on ground water sources

Irresponsible use of groundwater resources have led to a significant decline in the quality of ground water in the whole of Central Luzon.

Central Luzon has at least 12-million-cubic-meters of potential water supply and the need for fresh water is at an all-time high, most especially for agricultural production. Central Luzon’s growing population of 11,218,177, as of 2015, means more demand for water and even more for agriculture.

Farming alone contributes greatly to groundwater extraction as Central Luzon is the country’s rice granary region. Rice production requires substantial amount of water for production.

It takes around 1,432 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of rice in an irrigated lowland production system. Water used for used for agricultural production accounts for 70 percent of the global water supply.

Data from the Philippines Environment Monitor (PEM) shows that that by year 2025, water availability deficit would take place in several river basins such as in Pampanga which has a population of more than 2 million and is rapidly developing as an economic hub.

Seasonal variations like prolonged dry-spells, rising temperatures and high population are the major strains on groundwater sources.

Pilot projects in Central Luzon

The pilot project for a solar-powered irrigation system under the rice program is set for operation this coming May at Barangay Caridad Norte, Llanera in Nueva Ecija.

Central Luzon DA Regional Technical Operations for Extensions head Crispulo Bautista Jr. said that the Bureau of Soil and Water Management previously had small scale solar-powered irrigation systems for vegetable production. But these, he said, were not enough to irrigate large farms.

Solar-powered irrigation, like the one in Llanaera, can irrigate 5 to 10 hectares of rice land. The irrigation system uses the open water source of the Digdig River. The solar-powered irrigation pumps water out of an eight-inch diameter tube.

Bautista said that the greater pumping capacity of the irrigator is due to the size of the tube as well as to the 100 solar panels that generate some 40 kilowatts of electricity. The solar panel boards are lined along a 200 square meter land along with a pump house that shelters the submersible engine pump.

The DA said that the panels and engines are all imported from Germany.

Another solar-powered irrigation system is also being installed in Camiling town in Tarlac province. The project would derive its water source from the mighty Camiling River.

Bautista said that both projects are pilot test areas. The two projects will also serve as basis for the research of the DA on how to further improve the prototypes on solar-powered irrigation systems. He added that the DA will look on issues of efficiency and how to further customize the system to meet water source situations.

The two projects for Central Luzon were made possible from savings of DA Central Luzon out of its 2016 budget.

Bautista said that solar-powered irrigation systems remove operating costs all together. This means that there is no need to use fuel anymore.

Implemented mainly for farmer cooperatives, the solar-powered irrigation systems only require regular maintenance and that panels had to be cleaned at least once a week.

Before being turned over to farmer cooperatives, farmers will undergo training on simple trouble shooting and operation. Ten solar-powered irrigation systems are also being planned in different parts of Central Luzon, according to the DA.

Asked if the solar-powered irrigation projects will catch on with the rest of the farmers in the country, Bautista said it is up to the farmers to see the advantages of the technology.

“We introduce these facilities and technologies but it is still up to the farmers to integrate these,” Bautista said, adding that such was the case of the combine harvester which was initially met with apprehension by farmers but has now grown into popular use after farmers saw the practicality and efficiency of the said technology.

“The role of government is merely to be catalyst for the best possible technologies for our farmers to use. Government is ready to help but it is still up to our farmers if they are willing to embrace change for themselves and the environment,” Bautista added.