Drip irrigation systems: the history, the benefits and the problems - Green Prophet

Netafim pipes snake through farmer’s fields and deliver water and nutrients right at the root base

Drip irrigation, a marvel of agricultural technology, has its roots in the arid landscapes of Israel and the ancient ingenuity of desert farming. Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, drew inspiration from the ancient qanat system, a remarkable underground aqueduct system used by ancient civilizations, and introduced the concept of drip irrigation in the 1960s, with the pioneering support of companies like Netafim. Drip Pipe 16mm

Drip irrigation systems: the history, the benefits and the problems - Green Prophet

An ancient Qanat system in Persia. Spread throughout the arid Middle East, these systems predated Roman aqueducts but the historical narrative isn’t told

Before we dive into the modern marvel of drip irrigation, let’s pay homage to the qanat system, an ancient innovation from the Middle East area that paved the way. Originating over two thousand years ago in Persia, qanats were an engineering marvel that harnessed subterranean water sources to sustain agriculture in arid regions.

The qanat system consisted of a network of underground tunnels, meticulously designed with precise gradients, that tapped into natural springs and groundwater sources. These tunnels guided water to the surface, allowing it to flow gently and steadily to fields, providing a lifeline to crops in the heart of deserts.

The brilliance of the qanat system lay in its ability to minimize water loss due to evaporation and seepage, ensuring that every precious drop of water reached its destination. This ancient wisdom served as an inspiration for modern drip irrigation, which adopted similar principles to conserve water and promote sustainable agriculture in arid regions.

Simcha Blass, an unconventional thinker from Israel, was the visionary behind drip irrigation. He questioned the conventional wisdom of irrigation methods and sought a smarter way to manage water resources. It was Netafim, founded in 1965, that took Blass’s vision and transformed it into a reality, making drip irrigation accessible to the world.

The Treetoscope sensor collects information about water and soil nutrients to turn on irrigation systems at the right time

Now, let’s explore the mechanics of drip irrigation. Imagine a controlled system comprising valves, pipes, emitters, and tubing orchestrating water delivery with precision to plant roots. Unlike traditional methods that often waste water, drip irrigation is a gentle and efficient method.

Water Efficiency: Drip Irrigation’s Strong Suit

Drip irrigation excels at conserving water through these mechanisms:

An early version of the CropX irrigation hardware controller in the field

Beyond water conservation, drip irrigation offers impressive energy efficiency by:

Drip irrigation is not limited to water and energy conservation; it offers a range of advantages:

California, known for its almond orchards, has embraced drip irrigation. Almond trees require meticulous water management, making drip irrigation an ideal choice. The system ensures that each almond tree receives a calculated amount of water directly at its root zone, optimizing water use.

In the arid landscapes of California’s Central Valley, where almonds thrive, water is a precious resource. Drip irrigation not only conserves water but also reduces the energy needed for water distribution, contributing to a more sustainable and environmentally responsible almond industry. With the help of drip irrigation, California’s almond growers have been able to sustain and increase their production while minimizing the impact on water resources.

There are four main types of drip irrigation: soaker hoses (also known as porous soaker lines), emitter systems, drip tapes, and micro-misting systems. Each system has different features.

To maximize the benefits of drip irrigation, selecting the appropriate pipes and components is also essential. Here’s a brief overview of some pipe options:

Drip irrigation has long been celebrated as an efficient and water-saving method for crop cultivation. However, the widespread use of plastic materials in drip irrigation systems has raised significant environmental concerns. Plastic, which is non-biodegradable and often disposed of improperly, contributes to pollution and poses numerous drawbacks in the context of sustainable agriculture. Plastics and their components not only affect the soil but the food we are growing through them. Some things to think about when using drop irrigation on your farm:

One of the most glaring drawbacks of using plastic in drip irrigation is its non-biodegradable nature. Traditional plastics used in these systems can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, contributing to the growing problem of plastic pollution.

As plastic components in drip irrigation systems degrade over time due to exposure to UV radiation and other environmental factors, they break down into smaller particles known as microplastics. These microplastics can find their way into the soil, water sources, and eventually, the food chain, posing a significant threat to ecosystems and human health.

Plastic materials used in drip irrigation can leach harmful chemicals and additives into the soil, contaminating the very land we rely on for agriculture. These chemicals can alter soil properties and negatively impact crop growth but also impact the life in the soil including the fungus and tiny insects, bacteria and other organisms that call the soil home.

Plastic in drip irrigation systems can also lead to water pollution. When not properly managed, discarded plastic components can end up in water bodies, affecting aquatic life and water quality. Plastic debris in waterways is a pervasive environmental issue worldwide. Plastics are in the Pacific and they are showing up on remote islands.

This boat on the Seychelles is full of plastic that washed up on shore

The presence of plastic waste in agricultural fields and irrigation canals can endanger wildlife. Animals may ingest or become entangled in plastic, resulting in injury or death. This poses a direct threat to biodiversity.

The production of plastic materials for drip irrigation systems is energy-intensive, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction, refinement, and transportation of petroleum-based plastics all consume fossil fuels and exacerbate climate change.

Discarded or worn-out plastic components from drip irrigation systems often end up in landfills, contributing to landfill overcrowding. This, in turn, can lead to leachate contamination and methane gas emissions, further contributing to environmental problems. We have already learned that most plastics are toxic to recycled and are not being recycled in the United States.

Plastic components in drip irrigation systems are prone to wear and tear due to exposure to UV radiation, temperature fluctuations, and physical stress. Frequent replacement and maintenance generate additional plastic waste and increase the overall environmental impact.

Many plastic materials used in drip irrigation systems are difficult to recycle due to their unique chemical composition and the presence of additives. This results in limited recycling opportunities and, consequently, increased plastic waste. Some research is ongoing about making the plastics in drip irrigation pipes compostable. Innovation in this area from novel plant-based and organic materials is in need.

“Secondly, think about the impact of introducing drip on areas where groundwater is scarce and over-abstracted. At first glance, you might assume that farmers abstract less water so the aquifer is “saved”.  Not so!  The farmer now is able to irrigate more area and probably get higher yields, so water becomes more valuable and demand increases. This is known as Jevons Paradox, or the rebound effect and is widely observed across water short areas—not least California, which you quote as a success story.  

Karin Kloosterman is an award-winning journalist and publisher that founded Green Prophet to unite a prosperous Middle East. She shows through her work that positive, inspiring dialogue creates action that impacts people, business and planet. She has published in thought-leading newspapers and magazines globally, owns an IoT tech chip patent, and is part of teams that build world-changing products to make agriculture and our planet more sustainable. Reach out directly to [email protected]

Drip irrigation systems: the history, the benefits and the problems - Green Prophet

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