How Drip Irrigation Can Change the World: Adoption is still low for a technology that saves water, reduces use of fertilizer and increases agricultural yield
- June 1, 2017: Vol. 4, Number 6

How Drip Irrigation Can Change the World: Adoption is still low for a technology that saves water, reduces use of fertilizer and increases agricultural yield

by Seth Siegel with Naty Barak

The following question and answer session was excerpted from a podcast featuring water expert Seth Siegel, author of the New York Times bestseller Let There Be Water, interviewing Naty Barak, chief sustainability officer at Netafim, the Israeli company that in the 1950s invented drip irrigation, the most efficient use of water in agriculture, with the dripping of droplets of water at the roots of plants during regular intervals. Barak grew up in an Israeli city, but wanted to be a farmer. In time, he left the fields to become a senior executive at Netafim. Siegel and Barak discuss what its use means for solving some of the world’s most vexing problems. The audio podcast can be listened to at this link:


Naty, how much water is used in agriculture, and how much water does drip irrigation save?

Seth, you have to realize drinking, cooking, sanitation — we are talking only about 10 percent of the amount of water that is used globally. 70 percent is used for agriculture. Just imagine, drip irrigation can save easily 15 percent. Saving only 15 percent in agriculture, we can more than double the amount of water available for domestic use.

So that would be transformational in terms of our water supply and what we can do with it.

It is. Drip irrigation is an excellent answer to producing more food with less water.

When you say it increases the yield, explain exactly what you mean.

By directing the water, and I should say the nutrients as well, directly to the roots in the amount that is needed, the time that it’s needed, and of course the place where it’s needed, the impact made on the plant is amazing. And to city people, I can perhaps say instead of kind of wasting energy of the plant by sending the roots to look for water deeper and deeper, the food, the nutrients, the water is there where the roots are, and all the energy of the plant is going to produce higher and better yields.

What kind of crops can use drip irrigation? Is this something that is universal or limited to field crops?

Every crop can be irrigated by drip. When we started 50 years ago, we worked mainly with grapes, pistachios and almonds, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, citrus — mainly high-value vegetables. Today most of our work is done in the developing world where water security is really a challenge, and we are moving from the high-value crops to your basic foods. When we are talking about food security, we are not talking about strawberries; we are talking about rice, corn, potatoes, casaba, soybeans. Basically, everything can be drip irrigated, and it can be done by reusing wastewater.

That means it can be customized to any kind of water.

Yes. In your book, Let There Be Water, you mentioned other measures that Israel took to overcome our water situation, one of which is using wastewater.

Explain a little bit about how drip irrigation works mechanically.

Drip irrigation is not high-tech, but it is the low end of high-tech. We are talking about dripper emitters that are designed to deliver an exact amount of water directly to the roots. We have what we call the drip line; it is plastic tubing about half-an-inch in diameter. We have drippers or emitters, spaced along this dripper line, about 20 inches apart. Each dripper emits exactly the same amount of water and nutrients regardless of the distance of the water source, regardless of the pressure, regardless whether it’s going uphill or down into a valley. Each plant in the field will get exactly the same amount of water and nutrients, which is very important if you want to be efficient and you don’t want to waste water, chemicals and nutrients.

I’m guessing these can also be planted below the surface.

This is correct. It can be above surface. By the way, in some of the vineyards the farmers are hanging them on a wire on the trellises of the grapes. So it can be above ground, it can be buried shallow underground, or it can be buried a little bit deeper.

How long can those dripper lines last?

Some surface systems can last for 10, 15, 20 years, and they are still accurate.

I’ve heard you speak at different global organizations, and very movingly, about how drip irrigation can solve some of the world’s most pressing problems — social and otherwise.

When we introduced drip irrigation, we were really thinking only about one challenge, about the water scarcity in Israel. We were looking for a solution for farmers in the Israel Negev Desert. Drip irrigation gave answers to these immediate challenges. But then, when we went out to the world, it was clear to us that we have an answer to other challenges as well — food security, energy issues, climate change. And had you asked me several years ago, “Will drip irrigation have any effect on gender issues?” I would have said, “I don’t think so.” But now we see, when we are talking about small farmers in Africa, we are talking about women who are working eight hours every day, back and forth from the field to the river and back to fetch water. When we introduced drip irrigation to them, they didn’t have to walk so much, so work is much easier for them. At the same time, it increases yields. Drip irrigation has a beautiful effect on all those challenges.

This sounds like a miracle invention, so give us a feel for how widespread this has been adopted globally. I know in Israel about 75 percent of fields use drip irrigation. What are the numbers on a worldwide basis?

Today only 5 percent of global irrigation is drip. It is changing, but not enough. California, for example, with the drought today, I think is getting close to 40 percent drip irrigation. But even today in California, there is more flood irrigation than drip irrigation. There are other countries where drip irrigation is growing, like India, South Africa, Australia, other U.S. states, Central and South America, but globally, only 5 percent is drip irrigation.

How do you explain why this is so low?

This is a question that we are asking ourselves all the time. I think that number one is people — especially decision makers, but also farmers sometimes — are not aware of the advantages of drip irrigation. There are other obstacles — regulation, financing, some farmers being very conservative and not very flexible to adopt new technologies. All of those are obstacles that we are trying to overcome.

Do you find there are others partnering with you, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, other multinational organizations to help you push your product?

We do, but this is not enough. The only way to work with small older farmers is through partnerships. As I said, we do business in the developed world with more advanced farmers; this is really not a big problem. This is our business, and I have to remind you we are not a nongovernmental organization (NGO); we are a business and we are doing everything for business. When we are going to the small farmers and we see the amazing change — the amazing transformation that drip irrigation can bring to them and really bring them out of poverty — this is something that we cannot do alone because you have to organize a large group of farmers to create some kind of a critical mass. You need to provide them with some kind of financing, and there is a lot of training. This is something that, as big and successful as Netafim is, we are not able to do. We need partners for this, and partners can be local governments, local and global NGOs, agencies like the United States Agency for International Development and the German Corporation for International Cooperation, agencies in Holland and Sweden, and so on, and we do work and collaborate with them. But I have to admit that this is not enough. We have to do much more.

What does the world of agriculture look like in 20 years? World population then will be over 9 billion people. Will the world be like Israel in terms of drip irrigation?

I’m sure it will. You see we always say that necessity is the mother of all inventions. I think we have no other choice. I mean, Israel developed its culture and farming technology mainly because of necessity. I think necessity will get more young people drawn into farming and will get the best out of people everywhere.

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