How Drip Irrigation Can Save the World

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©. K Martinko -- A jojoba plant receives water from a subsurface dripper line.

From water conservation to less pollution to women's empowerment, a founder of Netafim explains why drip irrigation is the future of agriculture.

Naty Barak likes to tell the story of people coming to his community in the Negev Desert, in southern Israel, and admiring the majestic palms and lush, flowering undergrowth. They tell him, “I can see why you would choose to live here.” Barak laughs and points to a black-and-white picture on the wall: “That is what it looked like when this community started. We made it this way.” All I can see is barren desert sand, not a tree in sight. It looks desolate.

Barak is a tall, white-haired man with a great sense of humor and a knack for storytelling. He has taken the morning to teach me and a group of fellow environmental writers about drip irrigation, an agricultural practice that he believes can save the world. Despite warning us of his deep bias and the fact that he’s a founder of Netafim, a now-huge Israeli company that markets drip irrigation systems worldwide, his enthusiasm and logic are infectious.

Netafim at Kibbutz Hatzerim

© K Martinko

Agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of the world’s water use, growing food crops, bio-fuel, fodder for livestock, and fiber for clothes (i.e. cotton). Only 20 percent of the agricultural sector irrigates its crops, and yet that segment is responsible for 40 percent of the planet’s food. Irrigation is key, Barak argues, to improving crop yields.

There are different forms of irrigation. Four percent of farmers who irrigate use drip irrigation. Twelve percent uses pivot irrigation, another fairly efficient form of irrigation, while the remaining 84 percent uses flood irrigation.

Flooding is inefficient; it requires great quantities of water, while increasing greenhouse gas emissions, emitting methane, and contaminating aquifers. Often it requires women and children in poverty-stricken countries to spend many hours hauling water in buckets by hand, making it difficult for them to pursue education or complete other tasks.

Enter drip irrigation, which Netafim has been promoting since 1965. The idea is to give the plant whatever it needs, at the right time, and to irrigate the plant, as opposed to the soil. This is done via plastic ‘drip lines’ that lie either above the soil or sub-surface. Water is controlled at the source, whether it’s a reservoir or tank, and the soil around the plant receives a small, steady, and equal amount of water when the valve is opened.

There are countless benefits to this system, Barak tells us. Not only does it use 60 to 70 percent less water – a precious limited resource on our planet today – but it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions through more precise use of fertilizers, which are pre-mixed in the water before irrigation. It allows farmers to grow crops on hilly land, as only level ground can be tilled when flood irrigation is required. Drip irrigation reduces nitrate leaching and heavy metal absorption in the soil.

It increases crop yields significantly. Barak shows pictures of greenhouses in the Netherlands and Israel, where tomatoes and strawberries are grown with drip irrigation, resulting in much higher yields than in fields. For example, the average yield of tomatoes in one of these greenhouses is 650 tons per hectare, compared to 100 tons/hectare in a field using flood irrigation. Barak tells us that the resulting crop is of better quality, too.

jojoba field in Israel

© K Martinko -- Naty Barak (right) discusses drip irrigation with a jojoba farmer at Kibbutz Hatzerim, Israel

Drip irrigations can break the poverty cycle. While Netafim is best known for its high-tech, computer-controlled irrigation systems that can provide large-scale farmers with real-time field data, the company also sells very basic Family Drip Systems, which can be used off-grid by relying on gravity to transport water from a holding tank through lines in the fields. These are an affordable option for the planet’s 500 million subsistence farmers, who currently provide 80 percent of the developing world’s food. Many of these farmers are women, and to be less tied to the backbreaking job of watering crops is incredibly empowering.

Netafim’s work ties in nicely to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set last year by the United Nations. There are 17 global goals overall, and Barak pointed out that Netafim’s work aligns directly with 9 of them, including ending poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, ensuring availability of water, and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems.

jojoba plants

© K Martinko -- A row of freshly harvested and trimmed jojoba plants

To finish off the lesson with a real-life example, Barak takes our group to a jojoba field. While jojoba originated in Mexico, it has taken well to the Israeli desert – aided, of course, by drip lines that are sunk 30 centimeters below the surface. These jojoba plants are 26 years old and produce seeds that are crushed into oil that’s used by the cosmetics industry. The plants are watered three times a week for 14 hours each time.

Barak’s arguments are convincing, but it is looking around at his stunningly beautiful community, the Kibbutz Hatzerim, a small pocket of desert transformed into an oasis, that really makes his message loud and clear. If plants can be cajoled to live here, then I don’t doubt Netafim can make it happen anywhere.

Kibbutz Hatzerim

© K Martinko -- A view of Kibbutz Hatzerim, where Netafim began in 1965.

TreeHugger is a guest of Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization leading a tour called Vibe Eco Impact in December 2016 that explores various sustainability initiatives throughout Israel.