Solar-powered agriculture is rapidly depleting the world’s groundwater supply

That’s certainly the case in Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, where the desert sands are in a new form these days. Satellite images show about 100,000 solar panels shining in the sun, surrounded by lush green fields. Panels connected to water pumps provide farmers with free energy to pump out pristine underground water. They are irrigating crops of khat, a bush whose narcotic leaves are the country’s favorite stimulant, chewed by millions of men a day.

For these farmers, the solar irrigation revolution in Yemen is born out of necessity. Most crops will grow only if irrigated, and the country’s long civil war has collapsed the country’s electricity grid and made supplies of diesel fuel to the pumps expensive and unreliable. Therefore, they are turning to solar energy on a large scale to keep up with this demand.

Helen Lackner, a Middle East development researcher at SOAS University of London, says the panels have proved an instant hit. Everyone wants one. But in a hydrological free-for-all, the region’s groundwater, a legacy of wetter times, is being depleted.

According to one, solar-powered farms are pumping so fast that they have caused a “significant decline in groundwater since 2018, despite above-average rainfall.” Analysis By Leonie Nimmo, a researcher until recently at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory. He says the spread of solar power in Yemen “has become an essential and life-saving source of energy,” providing income from irrigating food crops and selling khat, but it is also “rapidly depleting the country’s scarce groundwater reserves.” “Finishing it.”

In Yemen’s agricultural heartland, the central Sana’a Basin, more than 30 percent of farmers use solar pumps. one in report Along with water researcher Musaid Aklan of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Lackner predicts a “complete transition” to solar energy by 2028. But extractable water in the basin may have decreased over the years. Farmers who once found water at a depth of 100 feet or less are now searching for water pump From 1,300 feet or more.

About 1,500 miles to the northeast, in Afghanistan’s desert province of Helmand, more than 60,000 opium farmers have abandoned poor government irrigation canals in the past few years and changed their jobs. harness Ground water using solar water pumps. As a result, water levels are typically falling 10 feet per year, according to David Mansfield, an expert on the country’s opium industry at the London School of Economics.

A sudden ban on opium production imposed by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2022 may provide partial relief. But the wheat that farmers are growing as a replacement is also a thirsty crop. Therefore, water bankruptcy in Helmand may be delayed.

According to Mansfield, “Very little is known about the aquifer (in Helmand), its recharge or when and whether it might dry up.” But if their pumps run dry, many of the desert province’s more than one million people could be left destitute, as this vital desert resource – the legacy of rainfall in wet times – disappears forever.

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