(Updated June 13, 2012, with more information on Hillel’s early career)
Daniel Hillel, an adjunct senior scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has been awarded the World Food Prize for his work in conceiving and promoting water-saving methods that have increased crop production on arid lands in 30 countries. The announcement was made today in Washington at an event led by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hillel is best known for demonstrating the scientific basis for “micro-irrigation”–the steady drip and trickle of small, finely calibrated amounts of water onto crops, instead of traditional cyclic flooding and drying of fields. Due largely to his efforts, starting in the 1950s and continuing today, in many places such low-volume, high-frequency irrigation has replaced the high-volume flooding or sprinkling standard through much of the 20th century. Hillel showed that micro-irrigation could not only conserve scare water resources, but that continuously moist soils increase the yields of many row crops and fruit trees. He went on to personally teach the technology to farmers and governments in advisory missions to many nations. Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said the achievement was especially striking because Hillel, an Israeli citizen who early on worked with fellow farmers in Israel’s desert, went on to help those in Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Turkey, among many other countries. “Confronting hunger can bring diverse people together across even the broadest political, ethnic reiligious or ethnic differences,” said Quinn.
Hillel was born in Los Angeles at the start of the Great Depression, but his family moved to Palestine–part of which later became the state of Israel–in 1931. As a child, he lived on a kibbutz, where he experienced the challenges of living in and farming a mostly arid countryside. He later received degrees in earth and agricultural sciences at universities in the United States, and at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Before finishing his education, he was already developing advanced irrigation methods, and had helped found a farming community in Israel’s Negev Desert, which was joined by onetime Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Soon, Ben-Gurion arranged to send Hillel on his first agricultural mission, to Burma. After getting his doctorate, Hillel went on to promote water-use efficiency across the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America under the auspices of organizations such as the World Bank, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and U.S. Agency for International Development. Along the way, he wrote 21 widely read books translated into 12 languages, and countless manuals and articles that helped spread the word on his techniques.
Among other things, Hillel helped developed systems that use perforated pipes to deliver water in conjunction with tensiometers–devices that measure soil moisture and allow farmers to finely tune the amounts of water given to specfiic crops. He designed ways to treat soil surfaces that increase water infiltration and reduce evaporation; prevent root zones from becoming too wet; and keep salts dissolved in irrigation water from leaching out into soils and damaging them. For largely barren areas, he showed how farmers could harvest and store rainwater by inducing and collecting runoff from sloping ground, and grow crops even on soils dominated by coarse sand or gravel. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Hillel emphasized that he was only one of many people experimenting with such methods at the time, and that others had commercialized much of the technology. The switch was also made possible by the new availability of plastic pipes and ground coverings, he said, and the willingness of new settlers to experiment with nontraditional approaches. Such methods are now used on an estimated 15 million acres in arid and semi-arid countries.
Hillel also early on recognized the potential for climate change to reduce the amount of rainfall in already dry regions, and began promoting efforts to adapt to what he saw as coming shortages.He became a senior advisor to the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research in 1992, and joined the organization in 1997. Recently, he has been working on adaptation of agriculture to climate change in association with the affiliated NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In her keynote speech at the announcement, Secretary of State Clinton said the world faces “a devastating water crisis.” Hillel, she said, “understood the critical role water plays in agriculture and the importance of getting every last drop used efficiently.”
“The impacts of Dr. Hillel’s activities are indeed universal, continuing and ever-expanding,” said Pedro Sanchez, director of the Earth Institute’s Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program, himself a winner of the World Food Prize, in 2002. “They benefit millions of people by enhancing the efficiency of water use in a world with growing needs limited and endangered resources, and changing climate.”
The yearly World Food Prize was founded in 1986 by agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, in order to encourage advances in all aspects of global food supply, including agriculture and food technology, manufacturing, economics and political leadership. Privately funded with a headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the prize comes with a $250,000 award. It has so far been given to citizens of a dozen nations. Hillel will receive the prize at the Iowa State Capitol on Oct. 18.