Drip irrigation: An agricultural revolution unfolding

Photo by Moshik Brin

By Joachim Marc Christensen, Project Coordinator of the Global Opportunity Network
Photo credits: Moshik Brin

Water for crops, when needed and in the right quantities, is vitally important. However, most poor farmers merely pray for water when rain and floods fail. Drip irrigation constitutes a revolution waiting to transform the lives of smallholder farmers and put food on the table for millions of people. We have consulted drip irrigation company Netafim to learn more.

More than just drips
There are no magic bullets or quick fixes to the world’s greatest problems, but fixing low productivity in small-scale farming is a good place to start. Water is key and drip irrigation distributes it carefully. Pipes drip right onto the plants eliminating water waste and increasing yields on sunbaked and water-exhausted land. The technology behind drip irrigation is not new, but its popularity is rising.

We will need to visit the arid and punishing Negev desert in Israel to find the birthplace of modern drip irrigation. Here, almost 70 years ago, a group of young farmers settled down to form Kibbutz Hatzerim, a small agricultural community. Naturally, the settlers were challenged by the dry and crop-hostile land, and they soon realized that the tinniest drop of moist mattered. They needed to adopt new innovative approaches to farming. After many years of experiments with Senior Water Engineer Simcha Blass, the company built the first pressurized drip system in 1965. The system pioneered modern farming, as it was able to clean itself from particles and small stones. The ingenious invention was the beginning of the company Netafim.

“We’re not only talking about food, we’re talking about feed for animals, fibres for the clothing industry, and in some places we’re talking about biofuel”, says Chief of Sustainability Naty Barak explaining the scope of drip irrigation. “They all depend on agricultural products and drip irrigation really increases yields, while saving a lot of water”.

Barak joined the kibbutz when he was just 20 years old, and has been a part of Netafim for over 40 years. He explains that global presence and decades of knowhow is essential in helping smallholder farmers. A simple “family drip system”, for example, can pull farmers out of poverty by effectively increasing their output. The system relies on nothing but gravity pulling the water from an elevated tank. Barak explains that the knowledge transfer from expert to farmer is what matters the most. “There are these softer issues of capacity building that result from the introduction of drip irrigation”, he adds, while explaining how the poor growers learn new agricultural skills, learn how to use new tools and learn how to correctly distribute the water – abilities they can pass on to their neighbors. Today, Netafim runs projects in most of the developing world including Ecuador, Senegal and Mozambique.

The necessity of partnerships
Evidently, Netafim has a huge effect on farming in the developing world, and not surprisingly, the company was selected as a finalist at the Sustainia100 – a prestigious award-show aiming to praise world-leading companies within sustainability. However, Netafim’s solutions alone are not sufficient when dealing with problems on a global scale. If poverty is to be a thing of the past by 2030, as the UN suggests with its new ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, private companies and local governments must work together to develop solutions that ensure no one is left behind. Barak describes:

“The farmer can go to the local bank, take microfinance allowance, buy the system and pay back in a year or two. But there are very few of the 500 million poor farmers who are doing that. If we want to achieve more, we need partners.”

The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to end hunger all together and ensure the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. Such an agenda demands networks of cooperating institutions and companies. More than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day, so the task is enormous.

Collaboration in Jharkhand, India
In India, Netafim has been a part of just the kind of collaborative networks that can reach even the poorest families. Barak recalls one project in the state of Jharkhand in which government subsidies allowed smallholder farmers to invest in drip systems and increasing produces enabled them to pay back potential microloans within a year. Finally, arrangements with private buyers guaranteed that the crops were traded fairly. Such a system directly increases the farmer’s income, but capacity building seems to be just as important: New agricultural knowledge empowers the farmers. They learn to be independent and more efficient, which allows them to devote more of their time to education and social activities. Yet, Barak considers Netafim’s projects in the developing world “a drop – not in the bucket – but in the ocean”:

“The first challenge is to create a critical mass of farmers so that it will be worthwhile businesswise – for us and for other private sector companies”, he adds.

Many drips to go
In the future, Netafim will continue to work with smallholder farmers. Barak even predicts “drip villages” of collaborative farming that will provide more security to the individual farmer. He makes the point that Netafim simply “cannot ignore 500 million farmers as business partners”. Nevertheless, Netafim cannot do it alone. If we want to see a world without poverty in 2030, local governments around the world have the responsibility of collaborating with private sectors to start the drip revolution the developing world needs. Today, drip irrigation is a drop in the ocean when it needs to be many drips in the fields of poor farmers.

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