Innovators in Irrigation
Water is a critical input for agricultural production seeing as crops need water for transpiration and evaporation. Irrigated agriculture represents 20% of the total cultivated land contributes 40% of all food produced, so it is twice as productive per unit of land as rainfed agriculture.
Irrigation systems were the first engineering works and started more than 8,000 years ago. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, when farmers diverted fresh water from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to fields by digging canals. A few thousand years later, the Romans famously designed aqueducts to transport water to where it was needed. And approximately 2,000 years ago Chinese farmers experimented with a primitive form of drip irrigation.
The Dutch are of course world-renowned for their vast experience in water management, with one-third of the Netherlands being below sea level. The complex system of dams, dykes and levees has served HVA well over the years, enabling our engineers to design dams and weirs for irrigation purposes on projects around the world.
Dams have long been used, and there are currently more than 50,000 large dams in use worldwide. The era of large dams was initiated with the construction of the Aswan Low Dam in Egypt in 1902. This was at a time during which HVA was undergoing its first transition period, from purely serving as an agricultural trader to engaging in estate agriculture.
Dams must withstand enormous forces, sometimes with hundreds of billions of tons pressing against them, and are ingeniously designed in an arch shape so that the hydrostatic pressure of the water straightens out the dam, thereby obviating the need for immensely thick walls.
Some of the largest arch dams in the world have been built in Africa, many of them built in the 1950s, at the same time that HVA was building up the sugarcane infrastructure in several countries.
Dams are unique in that they provide both regulated irrigation and hydroelectric power, so it is no surprise that they are built all over the world. Mega-dams are, however, becoming a source of contention, such as the GERD dam in Ethiopia that is scaring its neighboring countries who fear their crops may not receive enough water for their agricultural industry.
On the other spectrum of irrigation, agriculture has benefited immensely from advances in micro-irrigation. Drip irrigation using perforated pipes were experimented with in the late 19th century and into the 1920s. While drip irrigation was a more precise and water-saving technique, the tiny holes in the pipes were easily blocked by sediment. At this point in time, HVA had begun operating its vast estates in Indonesia but had begun looking at possible ventures in Sri Lanka and what is now Tanzania.
The biggest innovation in drip irrigation came in 1959 when the Israeli inventor Simcha Blass began experimenting with plastic pipes. He had noticed an enormous tree growing in his arid garden and discovered that it was thanks to a leaking pipe. By implementing larger and longer passageways that did not clog easily, Blass developed the first practical surface drip irrigation emitter. This invention coincided with HVA establishing itself in Africa and it has proven of tremendous value to us for more than half a century.
With drip irrigation, farmers became able to deliver precise amounts of water and nutrients directly to the roots of the plants. For the first time in history, farmers were no longer at the mercy of the weather and no longer needed to fret over dry spells. They were also able to economize on fertilizers as there was no run-off, which in turn reduced the impact on groundwater and rivers.
Drip irrigation was a tremendous hit with farmers around the world as it worked on all soil types and has positively impacted countless people who are no longer impacted by drought.
HVA was a keen adopter of new technologies and applied irrigation solutions depending on the circumstances. For its sugar cane fields in Indonesia and Ethiopia HVA erected small dams and built weirs.
Another major breakthrough in irrigation was sprinkler irrigation. The sprinkler system was invented by a farmer in Ohio, Charles Skinner. But the mos tsignificant innovations in sprinkler technology is the center pivot system. Another American inventor, Frank Zybach, pioneered self-propelled irrigation systems by combining turbine pumps, pipes, and sprinklers. This system saved on labor costs as it obviated the need for digging irrigation channels (furrows) and reduces the need for tillage, which in turn encourages more organic materials and crop residue to decompose back into the soil. It also reduces soil compaction.
Frank Zybach’s invention in 1947 completely revolutionized farming in semi-arid areas that were often prone to cycles of drought, such as the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s that impacted the entire world economy. With center pivot irrigation the previously marginal land in the High Plains in the United States were transformed into one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. Center pivots currently irrigate nearly 30 million acres on 60,000 farms in the United States.
In spite of having left school in the 7th grade to help his father’s farm, Zybach earned nine patents in his lifetime. His first invention was in fact a driverless tractor, which he designed when he was in his teens.
The first center pivots could irrigate 40 acres but by 1952 the system could water a 135-acre circle. By the 1970s Zybach’s center pivot system was widely regarded as the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the invention of the tractor and so many systems were in operation in the arid state of Nebraska that astronauts in space could clearly pick out the Northeast Nebraska region by the patterns of lush, circles of green crops circles produced by center pivots.
Zybach’s contributions all happened at a time when HVA was undergoing its second transition. Indonesia had declared its independence from the Netherlands, resulting in destruction or appropriation of all of HVA’s estates. Within just 5 years, however, HVA had pivoted and started up sugar cultivation in Ethiopia, where sugar had never before been produced and in quick succession built the three largest processing facilities on the African continent.
Zybach redesigned his center pivots numerous times and over the years refined the center pivot systems, making them almost indispensable in many arid parts of the world and the backbone of numerous HVA projects. Nowadays, center pivot systems can even get water to the corners of square fields and be programmed remotely to adjust amounts, or direction or speed based on weather and other sensors that provide real-time information.
Drip irrigation has of course also improved immensely since Simcha Blass pioneered this method of irrigation, with artificially intelligent systems cross-referencing data from sensors to tailor the water and nutrients with immense precision. But it is important that we honor and remember these pioneers of modern irrigation, men who thought outside the box and dared to do things differently.