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Drip Irrigation
The Promise of Drip Irrigation
Can this network of tubes and pipes help feed the world and alleviate water scarcity?
Drip irrigation is a system involving the controlled delivery of water directly to the roots of individual plants. Its ability to save water and reclaim land is getting increased attention worldwide as populations grow and climate change taxes the availability of fresh water.

Jamie: When you picture a typical farm, you probably picture rows of crops being irrigated by large sprayers on rolling wheels. A company in Israel wants to change that image. Netafim, which began on a kibbutz in 1965 is a pioneer of modern drip irrigation— a watering system that slowly emits water directly to the roots of individual plants through a network of tubes or pipes. Drip irrigation not only saves enormous amounts of water, it also reduces contamination by fertilizers into aquifers. And, unlike flood irrigation contributes no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Naty-Barak-Netafim

Recently Netafim was in Denver, Colorado for the annual meeting of the Jewish National Fund, a charitable organization specializing in development of Israeli land and infrastructure, especially planting trees. We sat down with Naty Barak, Netafim's Chief Sustainability Officer to learn more about drip irrigation and the company's mission to have efficiency be a tool for sustainability— and social change.

Jamie: How are you Naty?

Naty Barak: I am good and it's a pleasure to be here in Denver, Colorado.

Jamie: Netafim was the pioneer in drip irrigation, yes?

Naty: Yes. We introduced drip irrigation first to Israel and then to the world. We are the leading company— we are actually the global leader in irrigation and micro-irrigation.

Jamie: Yesterday you said something that we found very interesting and that is that there are two main competitors to Netafim. And the first one is what?

Naty: The first one is ignorance. It's not being aware to the advantages of drip irrigation. I see this as my mission. I mean our mission to lead mass adoption of drip irrigation or perhaps to lead the drip revolution. The second competitor is flood irrigation because all over the world out of all the irrigated fields in agriculture only 5% is drip irrigation. 79% is flood irrigation. Flood irrigation, first of all is not efficient. About the 50% of the water and the fertilizers are not reaching the plant but going down to the aquifer contaminating the water reservoirs. There's a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions from flood irrigation. We would like to change that to more efficient irrigation and mainly drip irrigation. In Israel, by the way 75% of the irrigation is drip, 25% is sprinkler and we don't have even one acre of flood irrigation in Israel.

Jamie: And in the Middle East generally speaking, is there flood irrigation outside of Israel?

Naty: Yes, they are still using flood irrigation along the Nile and in most of the Arab countries around us. But more and more we are introducing drip irrigation and I'm very happy to see drip irrigation used by our neighbors because people usually talk about wars over water, and I see water and especially efficient irrigation and innovations as a bridge for peace. So I'm much happier with an acre of drip irrigation installed in our neighboring countries than in any other place around the world, but there is still a lot of work to do.

carryingwater Jamie: And when you say a lot of work to do, is that mainly combatting ignorance?

Naty: Let's look at it the more positive way. It's talking about drip irrigation, explaining it, teaching people. I mean the most pressing challenges of the world are number one: food security; number two: water scarcity; and then arable land which is not available— certainly not in the developed world and not much in the developing world. And then energy problems and then you add to it all kind of social problems— gender issues, HIV, poverty and so on. Now just imagine that you had one thing, one practice, one innovation that could address all those challenges. And I'm telling you that we have this thing. Drip irrigation addresses all those challenges that I've described.

Jamie: So tell me how does drip irrigation address something like gender issues?

Naty: You know, people are talking about water scarcity and immediately you think about Africa and you see this picture of women walking with big plastic cans to the well and back. In some rural areas in Africa women spend 8 hours a day carrying water going to the well or to the river waiting in a queue sometimes and then walking back. We find that when we introduce drip irrigation to that village most of the farmers, most of the poor farmers are women. So number one, you don’t need so much water, you need less water. And sometimes it comes together with some kind a treadle pump or something like this that you can pump the water directly to the tank that supplies it to the drip irrigation system and even if not, they have to carry half the amount of water.

PullQuote_NatyAnd then we also do training and when you get together all the farmers and you start talking to them about things that are essential for the system like how to install the drip irrigation system, how to maintain it, how to manage the irrigation, what fertilizers to use, how to prepare the bed, what filtration, how often to flush the filtration... You already have all the farmers together listening to you, so why don’t you bring a social worker and talk to the women about education, about children, about health issues and so on.

And this is what, you know, we have witnessed it in India and we saw that with the introduction of drip irrigation to small farmers in poor rural areas you build capacity. Today more and more we are working in the developing world with small farmers and with basic food crops. So our number one crop today is sugar cane, our number two crop is corn. We are doing very successful experiments, large scale experiments with rice and this may be the real revolution. Just imagine – rice and corn this is your basic food and rice is grown in rice paddies that are covered with water, it is planted on the water, it is wasting a lot of water, a lot of greenhouse emissions. Fertilizers that are going and contaminating the water reservoirs and again just imagine that with drip irrigation you can plant rice on hilly terrain and you can have two seasons, two growing seasons - the wet season and the dry season. Or you can rotate crops. You can have rice and then another crop using the same drip irrigation system.

Jamie: Netafim has won some awards. Can you tell us about that?

Naty: Yes. Earlier this year actually in September we received an award which for us is the most prestigious one. This is the Stockholm Water Industry Award and for us it is like receiving the Nobel Price. They mentioned Netafim’s contribution to food security and they even said, “Grow More with Less” which is our slogan. But there are other things. Israel is not very popular unfortunately in one of the UN institutions which is the High Commission on Human Rights and I was invited, personally to several of their meetings because the United Nations has declared access to water as a basic human right and they realized that Netafim and our contribution is actually helping people to have more water because you see 70% of the available water in the world is used in agriculture and only 10% goes to domestic use, drinking and sanitation, so if you save only 15% out of the 70%, you can more than double the available water for personal use - for water and sanitation.

Jamie: Yesterday you said something that was really impressive to us and that was the amount of water that it takes to make a pair of jeans... of Levi jeans.

Naty: Yea, this is amazing and I often use this example. We have something that we call, I meant it's not us, it's everywhere, "Water Footprint" of a product and this is the amount of water that is used in the life cycle of a certain product. Well, a pair of blue jeans is consuming 4,100 liters of water. It’s 4.1 tons of water for one pair of jeans. 40% is in laundry. 10% is in direct manufacturing, and 50% is used in growing cotton. Cotton is a very thirsty plant. And this, I mean the amount of water that we can save just by changing growing cotton, irrigating cotton from flood to drip irrigation is going to be tremendous.

Jamie: You appear to be a very passionate man about these issues - water issues, sustainability and using water the best way that we can. How did this passion come about in you?

Naty: I think that Netafim is a beautiful company. I often say we are doing well by doing good. And we are doing that by doing good to the world really. You know I said earlier that we received this very prestigious award. I am very proud, and I am not ashamed to say it. I am very, very proud, it's a beautiful company. It's a mission for a better world.

Links: Netafim Website

Photo credit: "Young woman carrying water home"  |  Waterdotorg  |  Creative Commons

Published: October 29, 2013  |  © Copyright H2O Media, LTD.

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