NORTHBROOK, Illinois — Irrigation has been a crucial aspect of agriculture since ancient times. According to the UN World Water Development Report, 70 percent of the world’s water is used for agricultural irrigation. However, the UN’s World Water Assessment Program claims that over half of the water used for irrigation purposes is wasted through efficiency loss. In developing countries, poor infrastructure can lead to such efficiency losses. Transporting water to fields using canals without linings or covers leads to water soaking into unarmed soil and evaporation loss.
Estimates from the World Bank predict population growth to require global agricultural production to double in the next 30 years. This means that the world needs to grow more crops with less water. According to UNESCO, there is a strong, positive correlation between investment in irrigation technology, poverty alleviation and food security. Efficient irrigation is key to cultivating more crops to feed the world’s undernourished.
Agricultural water usage can be cut by at least 50 percent with proper irrigation systems. One of the most widely-recognized ways of dealing with this problem is drip irrigation, which has been primarily developed by Israel. Drip irrigation allows a controlled amount of water to slowly flow through tubes to the base of a plant through small emitters or pores in the tubes. These tubes can run above or below ground in order to prevent evaporation. Because of its ability to control precise target location, pressure, quantity and timing of water flow, drip technology increases irrigation efficiency. It is especially useful for trees and shrubs that do not require tilling soil, but can be used anywhere.
Drip irrigation has 90 percent field application efficiency, compared with 60 percent efficiency for surface irrigation and 75 percent efficiency for sprinkler irrigation, as demonstrated from a study at MIT. While significantly reducing water usage in fields, drip irrigation can increase crop yields by 20 to 90 percent, according to National Geographic.
Benefits of drip irrigation beyond water and energy conservation include increased plant health, design flexibility and increased crop uniformity. Additionally, with less water leaking into the soil, there is less weed competition. Ultimately, the technology also allows farmers to save money on utilities and on labor.
Various studies, organizations and international institutions have named drip technology as a key component in impacting resource saving, cost of cultivation, crop yield and farm profitability in India and throughout the world.
India and China have been the global leaders in implementing drip technology, where micro-irrigation methods have expanded 111-fold and 88-fold, respectively, in the past twenty years. Anil Jain, Managing Director of Jain Irrigation, expects India’s market for drip technology to increase by one1 million hectares per year, according to National Geographic.
The 18 percent of global agricultural land with irrigation systems in place yield almost half of the world’s food supply. However, out of the 2.6 km, two million of global farmland, less than four percent, currently utilize drip technology as its primary irrigation method, according to the MIT study.
While building this infrastructure is more costly than traditional irrigation methods, it ends up saving money in the long term. Because of high costs, companies such as iDE have started to develop low-cost drip systems catered toward small farmers in recent years.
“iDE’s suite of systems ranges from $5 bucket kits for home gardens to $25 drum kits for 100-square meter plots (about 400 plants) to $100 shiftable drip systems that can irrigate 0.2 hectares (half an acre), including plots on terraced hillsides. More than 600,000 of iDE’s low-cost drip systems have been sold in India, Nepal, Zambia and Zimbabwe,” according to National Geographic.
There are several international initiatives to spread drip technology. The International Atomic Energy Agency has signed 19 countries onto its technical cooperation project to promote drip irrigation systems. USAID and the U.N. also promote drip irrigation usage across the globe.
– Arin Kerstein
Sources: International Atomic Energy Agency, International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Geographic, Stockholm International Water Institute, World Changing