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Father of Micro-Irrigation Daniel Hillel speaks with the Wall Street Journal

By: Mickey Chesla, Blog Manager

Today Israel is a powerhouse of water technology, with dozens of start-ups in everything from water IT to water efficiency, as well as large established companies like Netafim and Mekorot. However the root of this success lies in the legendary drip irrigation and micro-irrigation technologies. Developed in Israel during the 1960’s, these technologies enable a most water-efficient way of irrigating crops. As water scarcity grows in our world, these technologies are implemented in countries all over the globe, from the U.S. to Egypt, helping to improve crop yield and save water. Nina Rei of the Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Daniel Hillel, a forefather of micro-irrigation, and winner of the 2012 World Food Prize. Here are excerpts from the interview:

WSJ: What inspired you to choose a career in agriculture?

DR. HILLEL: I was born in Los Angeles in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression. At an early age, I moved with my family to Palestine—a part of which would eventually become the state of Israel. At age 9, I was sent to live on a kibbutz, and I learned the reality and challenges of farming in arid conditions. I fell in love with the land, the soil, the ever-changing weather and open spaces. The miracle of irrigation was a revelation for me. I have kept this love all my life, and it became my vocation and avocation.

WSJ: At what point did your focus shift to drip-irrigation methods?

DR. HILLEL: After I completed my studies at Hebrew University [in the late 1950s], I began to develop, together with colleagues, ideas to improve the efficiency of soil and water management in arid conditions. Traditional methods of irrigation focused on flooding the land so as to saturate the soil, but this meant crops were alternately subjected to an excess of water and then to gradual desiccation.

But we realized through drip irrigation, by applying water to the rooting zone of crops very gradually, drop by drop, the soil is never saturated nor ever allowed to desiccate. Consequently, the system becomes more sustainable, water is used more efficiently and farmers could get much more crop per drop.

WSJ: How did you take the idea of drip irrigation as a concept and apply it to the real world? What challenges did you face in its application?

DR. HILLEL: We were lucky enough to be developing our ideas during the 1960s plastics boom just as low-cost weathering-resistant plastics became available. While earlier the soil could only be irrigated by flooding or via expensive portable metallic pipes, the invention of low-cost plastic made it possible to apply small doses of water to the soil continuously, so we could dictate how much water exactly the plants would be provided, at a rate commensurate with their changing needs.

WSJ: How did this new technological process then become widespread around the world?

DR. HILLEL: The system of drip irrigation was patented by enterprising engineer Simcha Blass. Drip-irrigation systems manufacture was instituted in Israel during the 1960s, from where it spread throughout the world. Basically, in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Bank, I have served in more than 30 countries to apply and disseminate improved methods of irrigation, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Palestine, as well as in parts of Asia and Africa.

WSJ: Where do we see drip-irrigation methods spreading to today and why?

DR. HILLEL: We see drip-irrigation methods spreading to various parts of the world, such as parts of the U.S.A., different parts of India as well as various parts of Africa, such as Zimbabwe. All these countries face the same issue: the great need of intensifying crop production in a context of heavy population growth and climate-change issues, such as drought. The technology must be constantly innovated and tailored to the crop types in question. For example, we’ve seen irrigation technology that is solar powered and also developments to the tubing material used; instead of using plastic tubing there have been switches to ceramic as the material is more porous.

WSJ: Can you name one country in particular that has recently adopted drip irrigation with great results?

DR. HILLEL: For me, I see Egypt as a great success story—a population that has witnessed soaring population growth and has managed to intensify its crop production as a result of drip-irrigation technology.

For the full Wall Street Journal article click here.


    Agriculture, Water
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    1. With the continuously increasing population, shrinking of land fit for cultivation, falling soil quality, drying up of underground water reserves, an erratic monsoon especially in the semi arid areas of India, the new techniques of irrigation like sprinkler and drip need to be popularised aggressively. Both these techniques in spite of their advantages, have certain problems which make them unattractive to adopt. It is here that scientist in irrigation should concentrate in removing issues that prevent them from being adopted in a big way. I hope the sooner we realise the gravity of the situation the better off we will be as the days go by.

    2. In India 60% of the land is dependant on rains and hence most of the farmers are at a loss when there is a slight change in weather patterns. To overcome this India needs to undergo a sustainable rain harvesting that keeps for a longer duration, usage of brackish water for irrigation and also economical use of water including recycled water. Recycled water means that water that has been used for external consumption like bathing, toilets, washing etc., Out of 1.25 billion, even if 0.5 billion people use 75 litres of water per day, 35 billion litres + (0.2 x 1 billion = 200,000 tonnes of dry solid waste) will be available for forming This is apart from the animal waste like dung etc., Also India has a vast coastline, so that technology for cultivation using brackish water shall be looked in to. By bringing proven technology to India, farmers suicide will end and Government and corporate needs to look in to and sponsor the same. Your plan and ideas may help the human kind in this regard.

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