Daniel Hillel helped change the way farmers in the Middle East water their crops. Now the rest of the world is catching on. Decades ago, the Israeli-American scientist helped develop and spread an idea called micro-irrigation agriculture. Rather than flooding the land at infrequent intervals, crops are exposed to small amounts of water in frequent or continuous doses. The result: much more efficient use of a tight water supply in arid climates.
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The breakthrough, for which Dr. Hillel was awarded the 2012 World Food Prize, took root throughout the Mideast and parts of Africa. But it’s seeing higher usage these days as more countries, from the U.S. to India to Mexico, face devastating droughts, many scientists say, because of climate change and vast population growth.
Not only are growing numbers of places adopting these methods, but they’re doing new and inventive things with them, such as using new types of tubing that can more easily get water into the soil. The Wall Street Journal spoke with Dr. Hillel about his contributions to micro-irrigation, the method’s spread around the world and his concerns for global food security. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
A Dream of Open Spaces
WSJ: What inspired you to choose a career in agriculture?
DR. HILLEL: I was born in Los Angeles in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression. At an early age, I moved with my family to Palestine, a part of which would eventually become the state of Israel. At age 9, I was sent to live on a kibbutz, and I learned the reality and challenges of farming in arid conditions. I fell in love with the land, the soil, the ever-changing weather and open spaces. The miracle of irrigation was a revelation for me. I have kept this love all my life, and it became my vocation and avocation.
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WSJ: At what point did your focus shift to drip-irrigation methods?
DR. HILLEL: After I completed my studies at Hebrew University [in the late 1950s], I began to develop, together with colleagues, ideas to improve the efficiency of soil and water management in arid conditions. Traditional methods of irrigation focused on flooding the land so as to saturate the soil, but this meant crops were alternately subjected to an excess of water and then to gradual desiccation.
But we realized through drip irrigation, by applying water to the rooting zone of crops very gradually, drop by drop, the soil is never saturated nor ever allowed to desiccate. Consequently, the system becomes more sustainable, water is used more efficiently and farmers could get much more crop per drop.
WSJ: How did you take the idea of drip irrigation as a concept and apply it to the real world? What challenges did you face in its application?
DR. HILLEL: We were lucky enough to be developing our ideas during the 1960s plastics boom just as low-cost weathering-resistant plastics became available. While earlier the soil could only be irrigated by flooding or via expensive portable metallic pipes, the invention of low-cost plastic made it possible to apply small doses of water to the soil continuously, so we could dictate how much water exactly the plants would be provided, at a rate commensurate with their changing needs.