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The History of Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is quickly becoming the standard irrigation method for many applications such as home gardens and landscapes, greenhouses, vineyards, row crops and orchards. The technology and materials have seen some significant changes throughout the years, but the basic concepts have generally remained constant.

Innovative irrigation methods, other than just getting water onto the ground, have been practiced since ancient times. One early method involved burying clay pots filled with water within a planting area, allowing the water to gradually seep into the soil at the plant's root zone. The era of drip irrigation began in 1866 in Afghanistan, when researchers began utilizing clay pipe to both irrigate and drain planting areas.

In the 1920's, growers in Germany began using perforated pipe to irrigate plants. Once plastics were developed and widely used after WWII, an Australian inventor named Hannis Thill began to use a specific plastic pipe configuration with long passageways to evenly distribute water to crops.

In 1959, Simcha Blass and Kibbutz Hatzerim developed and patented the first practical surface drip irrigation emitter. The emitter concept was developed several years earlier by Simcha and his son Yeshayahu in Israel. Instead of releasing water through tiny holes easily blocked by tiny particles, water was released through larger and longer passageways which decreased the water velocity as it exited the piping.

Drip irrigation options have also expanded to include compatible devices such as micro-sprayers, bubblers and misters, which deliver water in a different manner than drip emitters. These emitters with a wider water dispersion are generally used on plants and ground cover with wider root zones. Subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) uses permanently or temporarily buried dripline or drip tape located at or below the plant roots. This type of drip irrigation tubing has emitters embedded within the tubing spaced evenly apart. It is becoming popular for row crop irrigation, especially in areas where water supplies are limited or recycled water is used for irrigation. Careful study of all the relevant factors like land topography, type of soil, water supply characteristics, crop and climate conditions is needed to determine the most suitable drip irrigation system and components to be used in a specific installation.

Modern drip irrigation has arguably become the world's most valued innovation in agriculture since the invention of the impact sprinkler in the 1930s, which offered the first practical alternative to surface irrigation. Crops are now growing in desert climates which would not have been feasible without drip irrigation. Water conservation efforts in some regions of the world susceptible to drought have incorporated drip irrigation as the primary method of watering crops. Crop yields in virtually all environments have significantly increased while utilizing less water due to drip irrigation technology.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, a research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute, was recently named the 2012 recipient of the World Food Prize honoring "individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world." He has worked in Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries to spread drip irrigation technology to all who could benefit from it. Described as the "Father of Sustainable Water Management", he promoted agricultural development which does not rely on industry for fuel, pesticides to control pests and chemicals to increase soil fertility.

Drip irrigation is still evolving, and advancements are still being made in materials and techniques. Growers are increasingly becoming aware of how precious water is as a resource, how its efficient usage and management can assist agriculture, and how drip irrigation technology can positively affect society as a whole. Drip irrigation has truly become, and will continue to be, a benefit to us all.