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Drip Irrigation By An Israeli Business Might Transform Agriculture Forever

A little breakthrough in drip irrigation by an Israeli business might transform agriculture forever, especially in resource-scarce areas.

Chintu Das
Prof. Uri Shani
Prof. Uri Shani

Most crops across the world rely only on rain for water, but in regions where rainfall is insufficient, we are compelled to irrigate. Despite all of the advancements in agriculture in recent years, from GPS-guided tractors to genetically modified seedlings, 85 percent of all irrigation is still accomplished by dumping large amounts of water across the surface of a field, just as it did 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Flood irrigation has survived because it is inexpensive in terms of money, but it is prohibitively expensive in terms of natural resources. Up to 70% of water is wasted, and crops that are overwatered may not attain their full potential. Runoff carries excess fertiliser away, polluting streams, marshes, and lakes.

All of this was meant to be solved with microdrip irrigation. Simcha Blass, a student engineer in the 1930s, observed a tree that had grown considerably higher than the others in the same row and discovered that its roots were being nourished by a minor leak from a nearby irrigation line when he examined it closer.

Years later, the Israeli took the idea and turned it into a plastic drip irrigation system that was sold under the Netafim brand. It is still the world leader in its field.

Hundreds of drip irrigation firms exist today, but the method is used on fewer than 5% of irrigated acres worldwide, mostly for high-value crops like almonds, wine grapes, and tomatoes. The cost is the limiting element. Pushing water through hundreds of feet of pipe needs a lot of effort, which farmers provide with pumps; electric ones if they have electricity in their fields, carbon-emitting diesel versions if they don't. The dripper lines are also prone to become blocked by silt particles or algae present in natural water, necessitating filtration, which is an additional cost.

Water scarcity signs may be seen all around us, and they are becoming increasingly frightening with each passing year. The Colorado River was declared in a state of scarcity by the US government in August for the first time in history, causing supply cuts to some of the 40 million people that rely on it. The Central Arizona Project (CAP), a public utility that transports river water via canal from the western end of Arizona to 80 percent of the state's population, provides water to five million people.

Chuck Cullom, CAP's Colorado River projects manager, has spent the last decade looking at ways to increase Arizona's water supply, including wastewater-treatment technology and gadgets that assist urban consumers in reducing their use. Cullom met an executive from an Israeli irrigation firm called N-Drip at a conference in Tel Aviv in 2019, who was developing a technology that promised dramatic water reductions without the exorbitant expenses. Cullom admits, "I was super skeptical." “It sounded like a unicorn solution,” says the narrator.

Cullom was ready to test N-Drip because agriculture uses the great bulk of Arizona's freshwater. CRIT Farms received the system from CAP in 2020 to utilise 40 acres of sorghum. They discovered that it lowered water usage in half while boosting crop quality slightly: a remarkable outcome, although on a modest scale. This year, CAP expanded the pilot to roughly 200 acres of sorghum and cotton in Arizona, with the goal of deploying the system regionally by 2023 if everything goes well, while continuing to cover the cost of the equipment for farmers who install it.

Uri Shani, a professor of soil physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former head of Israel's water board, is the creator of N-Drip. He began working on a microdrip irrigation system seven years ago with the goal of making it affordable enough to be used not just for lettuces and berries, but also for commodity crops like soy and maize, which account for the majority of the world's agricultural production.

Shani, 72, was born in 1950 on a kibbutz rife with the anxiety that comes with living in an arid land dedicated to agricultural self-sufficiency. “My father was a civil engineer who specialized in water. Shani adds, "I've spent my entire life thinking about water and water solutions."

Shani earned a master's degree in soil physics from Hebrew University, Israel's top academic school, after finishing his military duty with an elite commando squad. He relocated to Kibbutz Yotvata in the desert of Israel's extreme south for his Ph.D. work. The area receives less than an inch of rain per year and relies only on brackish groundwater for irrigation: it is the agricultural frontier. He started as a graduate student and eventually became the kibbutz's manager.

Shani went on to become a professor and, in 2006, the first chairman of the newly formed Israel Water Authority. He took on the position, which spanned engineering, management, politics, and economics, at a time when the country was facing its worst drought in history. Shani accelerated water recycling and desalination investment. To pay for it, he hiked the price of water considerably and controversially.

To comprehend Shani's challenge, you must first comprehend what occurs within those simple black plastic dripper lines. Each one has a sequence of holes, with an emitter, a plastic widget approximately the size of a Tic Tac, placed inside each one. Water flows via an extremely tiny, maze-like channel inside the emitter, where it is controlled and released in precise droplets. In a conventional system, the resistance created by the emitters is the reason why so much pressure is necessary to transport water from one end of a field to the other.

Shani devised a new type of emitter with so little resistance that the water pressure generated by gravity alone—accrued during the 1- to 2-foot drop from the irrigation canal to the field below—would be sufficient to push the water hundreds of feet of tubing and out into the earth. He began by weaving plastic and metal threads into a variety of three-dimensional lattice constructions. But, he claims, it was on a walk that he had the epiphany: instead of a zigzag channel, his emitter would be made up of a rod hung within a cylinder, with water flowing through the tube shape produced between them.

Unlike a conventional emitter, no one particle of trash may now obstruct the flow of water. Shani exclaims, "Boom." “I was certain it was going to work. Then we worked on all of the math.”

Shani needed to market his invention once he had fine-tuned it. He called Eran Pollak, a former finance ministry official with whom he had worked closely as water chairman, and informed him that he had created gravity-based drip irrigation. Pollak was dubious. He, too, had grown up on a kibbutz and was familiar with irrigation; there was no such thing as zero-pressure drip irrigation.

“Of course, this would alter the world,” Pollak says, “but it would never work.” He met Shani at N-Drip's headquarters which was then a tiny office in a Tel Aviv neighbourhood strip mall. Shani took him back to a shed. “It was 20 meters of pipe, manually glued together, with a tiny plastic garbage that can drip water on the ground,” Pollak adds. “It was at the most basic level possible, yet this was the moment I realised it might work.” Pollak was appointed to the position of CEO.

N-Drip set up its first formal field experiment in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) towards the end of 2017, on five acres of sugarcane, collecting water straight from a river. They discovered that not only did the system function and consume less water, but it also boosted crop yields by 30%. N-Drip moved on to larger trials in Australia and the United States after receiving positive results, and has now spread to 17 nations, ranging from Vietnam to Nigeria. If Shani's vision comes true, N-Drip has the potential to modernise millions of farms and change global freshwater usage.

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