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Father of drip irrigation wins World Food Prize

By Larry Dreiling

PRIZE WINNER—Daniel Hillell, Ph.D., presents his laureate address following his reception of the 2012 World Food Prize recently at Des Moines, Iowa. Hillel, an Israeli scientist, received the prize for his role in conceiving and implementing drip irrigation, a radically new mode at the time of bringing water to crops in arid and dryland regions. His work laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture, increasing crop yields, and minimizing environmental degradation. (Photo courtesy of the World Food Prize.)

An Israeli scientist who many consider the father of drip irrigation for crops in arid and dryland regions of the globe received the 2012 World Food Prize in a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol recently.

"This year we honor Dr. Daniel Hillel for his pioneering work in the Middle East that revolutionized food production in that region and around the world," Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said. "Dr. Hillel laid the foundation for maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture through a method known as micro-irrigation, which has impacted millions of lives."

Quinn emphasized the importance not only of Hillel's scientific achievement but also his dedication to working with people across borders to help improve food security for all.

"Confronting hunger can bring diverse people together across even the broadest political, ethnic, religious or diplomatic differences," Quinn said. "Dr. Hillel's work and motivation has been to bridge such divisions and to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East by advancing a breakthrough achievement addressing a problem that so many countries share in common: water scarcity. It is significant that Dr. Hillel's nomination for the World Food Prize contained letters of support from individuals and organizations in Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates."

Born in the United States but raised in Israel, Hillel was first drawn to the critical issue of agriculture and water scarcity during his days living in the highlands of the Negev Desert. His research led to a dramatic shift from prevailing irrigation methods.

In the first half of the 20th century, farmers typically applied large amounts of water in brief periodic episodes of flooding to saturate their fields, followed by longer periods of manufactured drought to dry out the soil. The new methods conceived and developed by Hillel applied water in small but continuous amounts directly to plant roots, dramatically cutting the amount of water needed to nourish crops, maintaining their consistent health and resulting in higher crop yields to feed more people.

Hillel's water management concepts--promoted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization as HELPFUL (High-frequency, Efficient, Low-volume, Partial-area, Farm-unit, Low-cost)--have spread from Israel to Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. HELPFUL irrigation technology is now used to produce high-yielding, nutritious food on more than six million hectares worldwide. Hillel also helped devise a range of other adaptable, sustainable water management techniques for arid regions.

Specifically, harvesting rainwater by inducing and collecting runoff from sloping ground can allow farmers to grow crops on previously barren lands.

Hillel was noted for his innovative approaches to enhancing infiltration and reducing evaporation through soil surface treatments have enhanced agricultural productivity. He has defined ways to control the leaching of solutes, the waterlogging of root zones, and the erosion of topsoil by precisely determining the supply of water required with only small increments of percolation and drainage needed to prevent salt accumulation.

"What undermines civilizations very often is mismanagement of land, water, crops and agriculture; the very basis of subsistence, the very basis of life," Hillel said at his laureate lecture. "Infrequent, periodic flood irrigation over the centuries has proven not to be sustainable."

Hillel uses Egypt as an example, where the population has grown 30-fold since the time of the Napoleonic Invasion to more than 90 million people and the food supply had to grow to match it. That need spawned the building of the Aswan High Dam to store water but has created land below the dam to see increased salinization.

Hillel also offered a critique of sprinkler pivot irrigation, because of the high volume of water such systems use, even with lower pressure nozzles.

"The theory of infrequent irrigation--that is, come back every two or three weeks when moisture is depleted--was at one time the standard theory," Hillel said. "Equal availability of wilting point and field capacity."

Hillel saw the people of Israel kibbutzim were mostly new to farming and would be willing to try new technologies.

"It occurred to them that maybe if we applied water a few drops at a time in a continuous frequency rather than flooding the land with high volume and low frequency using perforated PVC tubing--something new that had emerged out the of post-war era--and then fine-tune the amount of water as the plant matured, you could have success in response to rainfall and the needs of the plant," Hillel said.

Hillel was born the youngest of five children in Los Angeles at the beginning of the Great Depression. Hillel's father died in 1931 when Daniel was 1 year old, and shortly thereafter his mother moved the family to live with her parents in Palestine, a part of which eventually became the state of Israel in 1948.

At the age of 9, Hillel was sent to live in the countryside on a kibbutz. His experience in this agrarian setting inspired his lifelong appreciation of the land and the need to protect its resources, leading him to pursue an academic and professional career in agriculture.

In 1946, Hillel returned to the United States to attend high school in Charleston, S.C., the former hometown of his maternal grandparents. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy from the University of Georgia (1950), and a Master of Science degree in earth sciences from Rutgers University (1951). Later, he earned a Ph.D. in soil physics and ecology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1957), and did post-doctoral work at the University of California in soil physics and hydrology (1959-1961).

Hillel's first posting upon returning to the nascent state of Israel in 1951 was with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, where he took part in the first mapping of the country's soil and irrigation resources.

He soon left the Ministry to join a group of idealistic settlers dedicated to creating a viable agricultural community in the Negev Desert highlands by nurturing the region's meager but vital resources. In 1952, he took part in establishing the Negev settlement of Sde Boker.

When the country's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, toured the area with his wife a year later, he was so impressed by that venture that he resigned from the government and became a member of Sde Boker.

Ben-Gurion and Hillel became close friends as they worked together on the kibbutz. Recognizing the young scientist's exceptional capabilities, Ben-Gurion sent him on goodwill missions to promote sustainable agricultural techniques in developing countries. In 1956, Hillel was sent to Burma on his first assignment to help develop the country's frontier.

In the following years--and into the present decade--Hillel participated in similar missions around the world, working for and with international agencies and organizations such as the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote water-use efficiency in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America.

He has also worked with the International Food Policy Research Institute and the International Development Research Center of Canada. He is currently a senior research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research, part of the Earth Institute of Columbia University, and is working on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change in association with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Along with his international field and development work, Hillel embarked on a career in academia as a researcher and professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Massachusetts, Columbia University and other major research centers worldwide.

He has written or edited over 20 books on soil and water science; his seminal textbooks have been translated into 12 languages. He has published more than 300 scientific papers, research reports, and practical manuals, and authored books for the general public on the role of soil and water in healthy agro-ecosystems.

"We are well on our way to doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," Hillel said. "We are now projecting that the temperature of the Earth will rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A warmer world is a more intense world. It threatens to harm agricultural output. It is a very serious matter.

"There is controversy, but the science is quite clear. We need to change agriculture to irrigate more judiciously to prevent erosion of soils, to conserve soil. Agriculture can play a very positive role into going from net emitters to net absorbers of carbon dioxide. As we enrich the soil with organic matter, we can increase the soil structure.

"We have been sinful our use of the soil and of life. We can either play a negative role or a positive one in the use of our resources depending how we manage them."

Hillel took a biblical approach to further thought on the matter, saying Adam, in Hebrew, is the masculine for Earth.

"Adam means of the Earth. Eve means life," Hillel said. "Together they mean soil and life. Powerful symbolism. When they began to abuse their privileges they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. It's for us now to stop abusing the Earth and become stewards of the land and air and water and return to the Garden of Eden."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at

Date: 11-26-2012


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