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

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