Drop by drop, Israeli-American scientist grows food in the desert

In Israel’s Negev Desert, one scientist did the impossible. Daniel Hillel helped figure out a way to bring water to crops in dry regions, first in the Middle East and then around the world.

Hillel developed “micro-irrigation,” which drips in just enough water to keep the soil optimally moist — all day, every day. That differs from traditional irrigation that soaks the ground in intervals, which uses more water.

Close-up of Daniel Hillel (Courtesy of World Food Prize Foundation)
Daniel Hillel (Courtesy photo)

“I can’t say that I was the inventor of it, but I was very active on the early stages of it and developing the philosophy of it,” said Hillel, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Israel. He splits his time between the U.S. and Israel.

Water scarcity plagues farmers across the globe. Hillel’s work has taken him to dozens of countries to promote the water-saving technology.

An estimated 9 billion people will live on the planet by 2050, up 30 percent from today. That will require a massive increase in agricultural output. Micro-irrigation offers one answer, as it dramatically reduces the water needed while boosting production.

Before Hillel was awarded the World Food Prize in 2012, nominations for him poured in from Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, a testament to friendships cultivated by addressing shared challenges.

Today, the method is used across the Middle East, as well as across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

“I’m a great believer in international cooperation, and I’ve devoted much of my career to it,” Hillel said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Daniel Hillel working with equipment in garden (Courtesy of World Food Prize Foundation)
Daniel Hillel introduces drip irrigation to Japan in 1971. (Courtesy photo)

Graphic showing amount of farmland using micro-irrigation in 10 countries (State Dept.)