Solar pumps, the simple solution we’ve been looking for?

Brian McSorely Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Brian McSorely introduces to solar pumps, the developments he’s seen over his career and his hopes for the technology for the future.

Whilst World Water Day is a time to remind ourselves of the injustice that up to one billion people still lack access to safe water, this year I am going to focus on the positive achievements that I’ve witnessed in the 14 years since I joined Oxfam.

I’m particularly excited about the increasing role of solar energy in providing affordable access to safe water for people living in poverty or affected by humanitarian crises.

Early solar pumps

Solar pumps are not new. Oxfam installed its first solar water pumping systems in the 1980s. However the cost of solar (photovoltaic) panels has reduced 100 fold since then and in parallel more efficient pumps means that solar energy can now power larger electric pumps which can meet the majority of field applications.

Even where 24-7 grid electricity exists, solar makes economic sense

Between 2006 and 2016, when I was Oxfam’s WASH coordinator in Kenya, we installed solar pumps in over 60 towns and villages. The small capacity pumps available back in 2006, typically producing 2-5m3 per hour, were only suitable for small communities of up to 1,000 people and for pumping water from relatively shallow aquifers. For large parts of the country high demand for water for communities and their livestock and water only present at greater depth.

A new generation

In 2012, Oxfam installed its first of a new generation of larger solar pumps in a refugee camp. Dadaab, was the largest refugee complex in the world at that time, with a total of 28 boreholes supplying the needs of 470,000 people at a reported cost of $300,000 per month in fuel consumption alone. The success of this initial solar system led to “solarisation” across Dadaab and larger solar systems being rolled out in camps in South Sudan, Tanzania and Ethiopia, the largest of which pumps over 60,000 litres of water per hour and is capable of meeting the needs of 15,000 people during daylight operating hours.

In Kenya alone these solar systems are now providing over 2 million litres of water every day, benefitting up to quarter of a million people. Apart from the immediate public health and livelihood benefits from having more reliable, affordable water, it has saved an estimated 360,000 litres of diesel and 955 tonnes of carbon emissions every year.

Solar panels are an increasingly common site across the developed world because, even where 24-7 grid electricity exists, solar makes economic sense. The advantages of tapping into an abundant source of renewable energy in some of the most inaccessible places on the planet are even more obvious. But it is yet to be embraced by everyone, a reflection perhaps of how quickly technology has advanced.

The Solar and Water initiative

With this in mind, Oxfam, in partnership with IOM and NRC, has set up the solar and water initiative. This project aims to raise awareness of the benefits of switching to solar, train practitioners and policy makers about solar pumping systems, undertake technical assessments to identify favourable sites for solar. The project is still in its early stages but cost benefit analysis undertaken across 20+ sites in Uganda has confirmed that a solar pumping system can pay for itself in 1.1 years through fuel savings alone and, over a 25 year expected life cycle, the cost of a solar pumping system will be just 31% of the cost of diesel equivalent.

The implications of this are enormous. Humanitarian needs are greater than ever and outstrip available funding. The United Nations Agency for Refugees estimates the average life of a refugee camp is now 24 years. The only way to continue to provide essential life saving services is by finding creative solutions that reduce costs of providing services.

For rural, drought affected communities across sub Saharan Africa – who live under the poverty line but who now have a cheaper and easy to maintain alternative to traditional pumps this a game changer. Affordable, reliable, sustainable access to water reduces suffering, safes lives, contributes to better nutrition, improved health, higher school attendance and more productive use of time. It is a fundamental building block to human wellbeing and development.

A simple solution

This is evident no more so than in Kataboi village in Turkana, Kenya. Kataboi was the first place I visited in 2006 when I joined the Kenya team. Oxfam has had a long term engagement with the village, supporting them through multiple droughts, floods and two cholera outbreaks. Yet, until recently, this support hadn’t led to a durable solution and the village would periodically slip back into crisis when the generator would break, going weeks or months without water. This forced people to drink water from Lake Turkana, the transmission route for cholera and for the local boarding school to send it’s pupils home.

The water committee chairman, Felix, had seen how solar had benefiting neighbouring communities and requested Oxfam’s support to due to the hilly terrain, size of the village and distance of the water source, it is only with recent technological leaps that we have been able to do this. It felt fitting that I visited Kataboi during my last field trip before I left Kenya to join the Global Humanitarian Team . The new solar pumping system and transmission line means the village now has more water than it needs and long term water security should now be assured.

There are many more “Kataboi’s” waiting for a solution around the world but fortunately the answer has never been more straightforward. I believe we have reached tipping point where solarisation should be the norm and use of fossil fuels should only be considered as secondary back up for night time pumping or in exceptional circumstances.

Find out more:

For more information of the Solar and Water initiative please contact: Alberto Ibanez Llario (Project Lead, IOM Regional Office for East Africa) or Asenath Ndegwa (Solar Pumping Coordinator, Oxfam GB)


Alastair Stewart