Israeli water tech comes to rescue of EU farmers

The Netafim drip company is leading a European project to ensure that crops are irrigated in the most productive way possible

Italy's Po River (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Italy's Po River (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The green fields of Europe are struggling to stay watered. A number of factors, from climate change to population growth to government policies, have turned even areas where water was previously plentiful into thirsty regions, where irrigation and other methods to manage water have become necessary. For much of Europe the concept of water management is relatively new, which is why an Israeli company known for its expertise in water management technology is stepping in.

A good example of the phenomenon is northern Italy’s Po Valley, the country’s breadbasket, where farmers have traditionally grown everything from asparagus to zucchini — including rice, one of the few places in Europe suitable for that crop. Dairy, beef, pork, and other farms abound, as they have for hundreds of years.

The heart of the valley is the Po River, the longest in Italy. With hundreds of tributaries pouring into it the river floods every few years, at times displacing hundreds of thousands of residents but guaranteeing fertile farmland.

But Po Valley farming isn’t what it used to be. Natural vegetation on nearly a quarter of the land next to the river’s shore has been replaced by trees that are cut down every few years by paper manufacturers; along the length of the 652-kilometer river lie 143 dammed reservoirs specifically for hydroelectric production; construction companies have raided the river for sand and gravel, leaving large holes in the riverbed and negatively affecting drainage; and more recently, farmers have abandoned the diverse crops they used to raise, switching to soybeans and corn in order to take advantages of EU subsidies for crops to be used in bioenergy production.

According to experts, the disruption of the traditional ecosystem has had a devastating effect on water reservoirs as the new crops require much more water than the traditional mix did. Add to that the fact that the city of Milan has for years dumped untreated sewage into tributaries that feed into the Po, and you have the makings of a water crisis in an area that has sustained millions of people for centuries without help.

It’s a story that is repeating itself throughout Europe: urbanization, population growth, pollution, government policy, and recurring drought (there’s currently a major one going on in Austria and Hungary) have prompted the EU to try new ideas and technologies to manage water more efficiently.

Enter Israeli drip-irrigation pioneer Netafim, which is leading an international consortium to develop new precision technologies that will improve irrigation management, thus increasing water availability for water-intensive crops.

Dr. Adriano Battilani (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Adriano Battilani (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Called FIGARO (Flexible and Precise Irrigation Platform to Improve Farm Scale Water Productivity), the €6 million project will “build a system to enable precise irrigation based on humidity, climate conditions, plant needs, and other factors, all based on a smart computerized system,” said Adriano Battilani, scientific manager of the FIGARO project and an author of the master plan, which is being conducted in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“We are building a platform with multiple sources of information that will use existing knowledge to implement new models of management appropriate to the current situation,” Battilani said at the recent WaTec Israel 2013 Exhibition and Conference.

Founded in 1965, Netafim pioneered the drip irrigation revolution, but has since widely expanded its offerings to include sprinklers, pipes, irrigation equipment, agricultural machinery, and more, many of them equipped with sensors that can read temperature, humidity, nutrient levels in the soil, whether a plant needs water, and other important data. The systems are controlled by software run from a server communicating with sensors in the field wirelessly, with the software providing instructions to each part of the system as to how much and when water should be dispensed.

It’s  those capabilities EU farmers need in order to make the most of their water, said Battilani. “The integrated and automated precision, irrigation management and decision-supporting tools, models and devices that are being developed will allow for a substantial reduction in fresh water use in irrigated agriculture.”

Coupled with recycling technologies and water conservation practices the EU is implementing, the Israeli-developed technology being provided by Netafim will have a big impact on European farming in the years to come, he added.

The project is already running at nine sites in Europe and Israel as a pilot program. Assuming the pilots achieve their goals, FIGARO will be expanded to the rest of Europe, said Battilani.

“The software application of precision irrigation has a large potential to lead to savings of water energy and other inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides,” said Netafim’s lead on the project and the director of the company’s Crop Management Technology department, Lior Doron. “By applying the platform that FIGARO plans to develop, the savings will be beneficial for farmers and other stakeholders. Investment decisions by farmers will benefit from a Cost Benefit Analysis. Regional managers will consider environmental impacts, both at the location of implementation and at the specific sites where saved water might become available.

“In order to develop a transferable system, it must be financially attractive to stakeholders in the short–medium term,” added Doron. “It must be practical and easy to implement by the direct end users, including farmers and agronomy consultants.”

That, said Battilani, is exactly what FIGARO is all about. “Water management in the EU is a complex problem, and a complex problem requires complex solutions,” he said. “This is a real challenge for the future, and with Netafim’s help I believe we are going to be able to meet this challenge.”

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