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IICA Day 2013: Water to Feed the Land of the Americas – Dr. Daniel Hillel Keynote Address
On Tuesday, November 12, GHI joined the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) during their annual IICA Day event, held at the Organization of American States (OAS) Building in Washington, DC. Principally designed for decision-makers and those that influence policy, IICA Day 2013 provided an overview of the challenges facing the region regarding water and agriculture and the importance of proactively and effectively addressing these issues in the short term. Participants in the event discussed several of the innovative solutions that are being employed to affect change in the region, and learned more about the IICA 2013 Meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture of the Americas meeting held in Buenos Aires, Argentina (September 24-27, 2013), which focused on water.
Despite having large quantities of fresh water, the Latin American region must also consider how to best use these water resources in the face of increasing climate change and demand for food across the region and around the globe. The theme of “Water to Feed the Land of the Americas” helped to explore new technologies and approaches to improve availability and use of water in the Americas.
Dr. Daniel Hillel opened IICA Day with a keynote address. Dr. Hillel is an Israeli agronomist, and a leader in the field of water and soil technology, particularly with regard to micro-irrigation and soil management systems. Dr. Hillel received the 2012 World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, in recognition of his expertise and innovative ideas that helped transform Israel’s barren deserts into technicolor oases of astounding productivity. Hillel has also helped spread water and life-saving technologies across the Middle East and to the rest of the world, and promoted education, science, and poverty-reduction. His understanding of agronomy has been focused by a keen awareness of history; he and his wife (a prominent archaeologist) brought this cross-cultural and historical perspective to the IICA Day Event.
We are all “sacks of water,” Hillel opened, and this has been true throughout history. Early civilizations from Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Yellow River in China were only made successful by their management of water. Water pumps, channels, locks and dykes were essential to organized civilization and government bureaucracy, but were also dangerous when mismanaged. Dr. Hillel notes that the lack of knowledge of soil salinity, and the over-irrigation and poor maintenance of soils often brought about a fall in agricultural productivity and eventually, the collapse of civilizations.
The origins of irrigation can be traced to the Middle East, and so it is fitting that the more modern drip irrigation systems Hillel has spent his life researching were first developed in Israel. “High-frequency, low-volume limited area” irrigation systems were first developed about 40 years ago when Hillel and other scientists in Israel were struggling to build a young, strong nation out of the hostile desert. After attaining his master’s degree in earth sciences from Rutgers in the U.S., Hillel returned to Israel and worked on a Kibbutz, where his new and innovative ideas were noticed by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Since that time, the technology has spread due to its tremendous benefits over older irrigation systems.
This “new” form of irrigation holds many promises. By using plastic perforated tubes instead of sprinklers or flooding to relay water to plants, these “drip” irrigation systems increase efficiency and drastically reduce water usage. The continuous application of water has been shown to have large benefits over the periodic flooding associated with older technologies. The tubes are laid in neat networks, and can be computerized to monitor exactly how much water each plant gets drop by drop. They can even be used to relay nutrient fertilizers and pesticides or other inputs directly to the roots of each individual plant. These new irrigation systems have allowed arid regions of Israel to develop into flourishing pockets of productivity, and are increasingly being implemented elsewhere in the world.
Dr. Hillel notes, however, that these systems are not a “magic bullet” or panacea. Too many individuals and organizations have assumed that if they buy these systems and lay them down, they will then automatically receive a dramatic increase in yields. Unfortunately, these computerized irrigation networks are complex and require a good amount of technical knowledge to operate. Perhaps more importantly, they also require a good supply of materials for repair and maintenance. Dr. Hillel closed his address by stressing the need to improve support networks for smallholder farmers. In order to spread these new technologies to the resource and water-poor farms where they are really needed, these technologies need to be properly supported and adapted to meet local conditions.