Watering the World’s Deserts, Drop by Drop

April 28, 2021

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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In 2000, the northern coastal valley of Peru was a barren desert where farmers could grow little. For many years, their hope of turning the desert green seemed like a pipe dream. Peru rivalled Haiti as one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere, with many of the Peruvian people lacking food and basic necessities.

Transforming a Nation

Then came an economic miracle. In 20 years, the extreme poverty rate plummeted from 90 to 2.5%. Peru became one of the fastest growing economies in South America. What was once a desert turned into a land flowing with milk and honey.

The land was transformed into such a fertile vineyard that in a very short time, Peru was exporting much of its grape harvest to the US. In addition, other exotic crops such as blueberries, asparagus, avocados and citrus were exported to over 150 markets worldwide.

How did it happen? When transformation occurs with such astounding speed, we know that God has shown up and touched a nation in miraculous and practical ways. One of those ways was through an Israeli agricultural innovation called drip irrigation.

An Irrigation Revolution

Drip irrigation is the process of watering crops through a hose perforated by small holes or emitters that deliver water to a plant’s roots evenly and consistently. It uses a fraction of the water used in traditional irrigation methods and the production rates are 25 to 50% higher. Very little water is wasted through evaporation, and in areas of the world where water is scarce, drip irrigation has made a tremendous impact.

Ancient irrigation methods traditionally involved flooding or transporting water via canals and ditches. Those methods are still used today in large parst of the developing world. However, flooding fields for growing rice meant half the water would be lost due to evaporation and absorption. The use of porous canals also meant leakage and evaporation loss. The world needed a revolutionary way to irrigate crops as a burgeoning food crisis demanded that production double rapidly to meet the need.

Enter Israel. Because much of Israel’s land mass is desert, necessity has forced the Jewish state to find solutions to the issue of water scarcity by developing an irrigation system that is water efficient. Israel became a model for the world, proving that a desert could become a veritable vegetable and fruit basket. The Arabah Desert, Israel’s most arid region, now exports 60% of its produce worldwide.

Saving Water, Boosting Yields

Drip irrigation was developed in 1959 by Simcha Blass and his son, Yeshayahu, on Kibbutz Hatzerim. The method has been recognized internationally as the most effective way to irrigate crops while minimizing water usage. Blass and Kibbutz Hatzerim formed a company called Netafim in 1965, which is now the world’s leading micro-irrigation developer and marketer.

A study by MIT found that drip irrigation had 90% field application efficiency compared with surface or sprinkler irrigation. National Geographic reports that crop yields made a massive jump under drip irrigation, yielding 20 to 90% more than other irrigation methods. Drip irrigation has, in effect, saved massive amounts of the world’s water as well as rescued the land from soil erosion and nutrient loss.

Innovations in drip irrigation have continued to develop. Most recently, plant sensors attached to the plant’s stem, leaves or roots can now relay to farmers via their smartphones how much water the plant needs. It enables them to evaluate the plant’s health, adjusting the water and fertilizer flow accordingly. Another Israeli, Leon Slavkin, developed this irrigation technology at an irrigation company called SupPlant.

Irrigating Rice Fields

Netafim built its largest drip irrigation project in India and is revolutionizing the way India’s farmers grow their crops. More than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of India’s farmland is irrigated using this technology, and the growth of rice crops—a foodstuff that feeds most of the world—is experiencing a transformation. Traditional irrigation of rice fields by flooding massively depleted India’s water resources and aquifers, but the introduction of drip-irrigated rice promises to increase yield by more than 20%, using a third less water.

Greening the Deserts of Africa

Water scarcity has reached a crisis point in the Sahel region of Africa, located south of the Sahara Desert. In Niger, a country on the edge of the Sahel, farmers have had to depend on the Niger River for irrigating their crops. Scant rainfall and devastating drought have diminished the Niger River to the point where it is possible to walk across the river in some months of the year. The World Bank Group reports that temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than the rest of the world, with temperatures consistently above 45°C (113°F). Sahel’s extreme heat and drought conditions have caused much of the arable land to be lost to desert.

In a desperate effort to restore the land, farmers in Niger were given access to solar-powered drip irrigation systems through a program called the Niger Irrigation Program in association with several private sector organizations and Netafim. The program has reportedly reduced water usage by up to 50%, provided replacement parts for irrigation equipment and education for its use. The farmers, mostly women, formerly had to drill wells and carry buckets of water to irrigate their crops. They have now left behind the backbreaking work and have time to plant, rotate and harvest crops on a schedule that produces the best results.

Thanks to Israeli ingenuity, many nations of the world are experiencing prosperity beyond their wildest dreams. Incomes are improving using less energy and water yielding more crops. To nations so often broken by poverty, Israel has once again offered hope and healing.

Source: Click on photo to see photo credit

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