Innovation in water, part 1: drip irrigation


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Today is World Water Day, a good time to ponder the impacts of global climate change on water availability and quality. Julia Bucknall was part of a team of experts from the WDR2010 and the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa region visiting Israel last week to learn about innovation in water. The blog below is the first in three installments.

Can high-tech agriculture help developing countries get more from their water? 

Israel invented drip irrigation, a technology that has spread rapidly since its introduction in the 1960s and which is widely touted as a key way for countries to close their water gap and be more adapted to climate change.  It certainly does reduce evaporative losses, is often associated with a switch to high-value crops, and reduces fertilizer use when liquid fertilizer is added to the mix and delivered precisely to the root of the plant (a process that delights in the name “fertigation”).  We often see important productivity gains. 

Yet it’s not as simple as that. 

It usually works well for the farmer but can encourage an expansion or intensification of cultivation that often leads to an increase in water used.  This is particularly the case in countries that do not have the political will or institutional capacity to set and enforce water quantity limits for farmers – ie most developing countries. 

Yet if drip irrigation is used as part of a programme to build a restriction on individual consumption in combination with increasing farm productivity, major gains are possible.  Here in Israel, factories are exporting the technology all over the world.  A team from the WDR 2010 and the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa region saw pallets of drippers bound for Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Cyprus. 

Converting to drip can be expensive because it requires water in pressurized pipes (rather than open, gravity-fed canals) or requires a large storage pond on each farm. 

Here, the Ministry of International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) and the Ministry of Agriculture are piloting small systems that can be used on plots as small as 500m2 and that don’t need pressure. I took a video of the promising pipe system:

Low Pressure Drip Irrigation from World Bank on Vimeo.

They are also bringing agricultural organizations from across the developing world to learn about the technology -- how to use it, how to cultivate with it, how to keep it in good working order. The participants leave filled with excitement about the possibilities for applying this in fields and elsewhere. One participant was eager to bring the technology to a village school in Kenya to teach kids physics (using gravity to provide water pressure), chemistry (fertigation), plant biology, mathematics and of course farming and responsible water use.

See also: Innovation in water, part 2: desalination and part 3: necessity is the mother of invention


Julia Bucknall

Director for Environment and Natural Resources

Join the Conversation

Rita Cestti
March 24, 2010

Improving the efficiency of irrigation systems by itself, while beneficial and indispensable in the Middle East North Africa region and other arid or semi-arid regions of the world, does not translate into real water savings in the hydrological cycle. Often, these improvements lead to an increase in water consumption and reductions in aquifer recharge/ return flows, thus the importance of setting up a comprehensive accounting system of water use.

At present we have proven technologies for water accounting that combine remote sensing with hydrological models and cutting-edge science. We need to emphasize this more in our operations dealing with irrigation modernization and/or improvements. Next Friday, April 26, the World Bank will host one of the gurus on water accounting, Dr. Wim Bastiaanssen, who will give a lunch-time talk on the subject.

Follow the link below for additional information about the event:

peio revuelta
May 16, 2010

It is a useful information about drip irrigation. I am a farmer and we have very large fields, before drip
irrigation system was found it was a nightmare to irrigate all those fields because where i live is a place
that does not rain so much. Now we use drip irrigation, saving so many water and it is a lot easier to irrigate
the field with that. I am trying to read everything about drip irrigation and i recommend every farmer to use that
technique, so i am grateful for everyone who gives information about it. I also found a very good guide about drip
irrigation and it may be useful too for those who want to learn more information about that;

John Fleming
May 14, 2017

My brother installed drip in my father's hobby grove in 1968. My father added acreage, and we added to the system, irrigating 15 aces with a Sears swimming pool pump, and a 40 foot well. Yields improved greatly, Weed control was easier, and the cost minimal.
It would seem to me thar you could attach an old-fashioned windmill water pump and have zero energy costs