Getting Water Up the Mountainside: How the Barsha Pump Utilizes Nepal’s 6,000 Rivers to Power Irrigation

In the Himalayan mountains, irrigation can be a challenge. There are few affordable pumping technologies accessible for poor farmers, and they come with high maintenance costs. Diesel pumps, for instance, are not only expensive to maintain, but they provide dirty energy. Solar pumps, on the other hand, provide a clean alternative, but require constant repairs from skilled technicians. Farmers needed a simple, cost-effective solution, and the secret, I found, was in river power already present in Nepal’s more than 6,000 rivers.

As an industrial engineer, I wanted to design a tool to help communities like the one where I grew up — on a farm on the slopes near the Lele river in Nepal. Even though we were so close to a water source, it was hard to get the water necessary to our crops because of the elevated fields. So, with three other partners from my alma mater the Delft University of Technology, I founded a company called aQysta to do just that.

We came up with the “Barsha pump” —  a low-cost, hydro-powered pump easily implemented anywhere there is flowing water. The pump is simply placed in a river or stream and uses the energy from the river to pump water inland without needing expensive fuel. It requires little maintenance and helps small farmers irrigate their fields up to two kilometers away with up to 43,000 liters of water per day.

We see an enormous opportunity for clean, renewable energy in every mountain river

By 2014, we had a prototype and were ready to start selling. But in April 2015, the earthquake hit that devastated much of the Nepal. The country faced fuel shortages, and farmers struggled to irrigate their fields. There was a greater need than ever before for our product. Shortly thereafter, the Nepalese government allocated a budget for 200 pumps in its annual plan to help recovering farmers take care of their crops, and our business was off.

In 2014, we won a $500,000 grant with Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development to begin deploying the Barsha pump. We built five demonstration pumps that benefited 300 people and successfully turned nine hectares of non-arable land into productive farmland. And in the last year, we have sold 32 pumps to various NGOs working with farmers in developing countries. So far, our product has expanded from Nepal to Indonesia, Turkey, Namibia, and Spain, with orders placed in Colombia and Guatemala.

Today, we’re continuing to adapt our pump’s design to make production more efficient and reduce our production costs to bring clean irrigation to more farmers. We’re also sourcing our products closer to home in India and China and partnering with distributors so farmers see first-hand how the Barsha pump provides them with more clean, efficient energy.

Anyone who has seen the Himalayas knows how daunting they can appear up close. But for all of us at aQysta, we see something different when we look at the world’s highest peaks. We see an enormous opportunity for clean, renewable energy in every mountain river that tumbles from the rooftop of the world to the valleys below.

Pratap Thapa is one of the three founders of aQysta, a startup focused on high-tech, clean, sustainable solutions in the agricultural sector and striving to enhance food security for underprivileged communities throughout the world. aQysta currently operates from the Yes! Delft incubator, the largest high-tech incubator in Europe.

aQysta is a grantee of Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development. SWFF aims to increase access to innovations that help farmers produce more food with less water, enhance water storage, and improve the use of saline water and soils to produce food. Over the previous two years, the program through its innovators has saved over 2 billion liters of water, produced nearly 3,000 tons of food, and served more than one million farmers and other customers in more than 28 low-resource countries.