One Drop at a Time (TSI Chapter Excerpt)

No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. ~ Genesis 2:5–6

Irrigating on Point

On a crisp afternoon in the spring of 2015, Rafi Mehoudar paced backstage, waiting to make his entrance. It was the sixty- seventh anniversary of Israeli independence, and several thousand people had gathered at Israel’s Mount Herzl National Cemetery in Jerusalem. The mood was festive, as ten of the country’s luminaries came on stage to light a torch in honor of their achievements. Notable figures included Danny Gold, the innovator behind Iron Dome; Gavriel Iddan, the inventor of the PillCam; and Ehud Shabtai, one of the cofounders of Waze.

Then it was Mehoudar’s turn. He walked up to the lectern in a dark suit, smiling as he looked out at the crowd of people waving blue- and- white Israeli flags. Mehoudar had helped develop modern drip irrigation, a system that waters crops one drop at a time, more efficiently and effectively than earlier methods. But before he left the stage, he sifted through his notes as if he was looking back in time. Then he praised his forgotten predecessor, a man who had not received the money or fame that came from his remarkable invention. “In honor of Simcha Blass,” he said, “who against all odds advanced the use of drip irrigation fifty- five years ago.”

Mehoudar lit the torch, and the crowd erupted in applause. The only problem: Blass was not alive to hear it. Some thirty- three years earlier, he had died a bitter man.

It was August 12, 1965. The taxi carrying Simcha Blass, an Israeli water expert, came to a screeching halt in front of a ramshackle building in Kibbutz Hatzerim, a socialist commune in the middle of the Negev Desert.1 Israel had existed for less than twenty years, and it had already experienced three wars. Now the kibbutz was waging a battle to conserve one the world’s most vital and finite resources: water.

Because of its remote and barren setting, the kibbutz had long struggled to get by, so Hatzerim’s leadership decided to try something new. They wanted to start a business that would help earn extra money for the kibbutz’s roughly one hundred inhabitants, and they’d been in negotiations with Blass for a project they felt could accomplish just that.2 As Blass stepped out of the car, he steadied himself with his cane and slipped on long white gloves that extended to his elbows.3 Peering out in the distance, all he could see was miles of sand.

The area was parched, and there was little the kibbutz could do. Israel’s farmers had long used flood irrigation to water their fields. This method has been used for centuries in the Middle East in places like Egypt and Iraq, where people used the Nile, Euphrates,and Tigris rivers to support their crops. Farmers built canals and trenches for irrigation, but these systems took a massive amount of time, effort, and money. Even worse, agronomists estimate that more than 50 percent of water evaporates or drains into the soil before a plant’s roots can absorb it.4 Being a poor country, Israel couldn’t afford to waste a single drop, yet it was wasting a whole lot more.

Blass had created an irrigation system he believed could save an enormous amount of water and fertilizer. Using pipes, small holes, and narrow plastic tubes, he believed he could build a device that delivered water directly to the base of the plant. The kibbutz hoped he was right. Most of Israel’s academics, farmers, and government officials, however, were skeptical. How could dripping a small amount of water allow plants to grow and yield significant crops?

But Hatzerim was willing to take a chance. Blass signed away the rights to his invention to the kibbutz. In return, he received a small royalty on future sales and 20 percent of the shares in the company the kibbutz was building around his invention. He left the kibbutz, satisfied with the terms. But his satisfaction was short- lived.

The Tree of Knowledge

A descendent of the Vilna Gaon, one of the world’s most famous rabbis, Blass was born into a Hasidic family in Poland in 1897. Growing up, he enjoyed tinkering with clocks and was involved in the local Zionist youth group. When World War I broke out, he was drafted into the Polish army and served for two years. During his service, he created a meteorological instrument for measuring wind speed and direction.

After the war, he enrolled in a Polish engineering institute, where he began thinking about how to use alternative sources of energy for internal combustion engines. Among his inventions was an engine that used alcohol derived from barley instead of gasoline.5
His passion for engineering was matched by his interest in a Jewish state.

When he realized that Israel did not have enough barley for cattle, let alone engines, he decided to create a machine capable of planting large quantities of wheat, which he completed and tried to sell.6 It never took off, but in 1930, he left Europe for Palestine, excited to return to the Jewish homeland.

Shortly after arriving with his wife, Yehudit, he began working on water projects for the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Israel. One day in the early 1930s, a friend invited Blass to his home in Karkur, a town near Haifa. As the two ate outside, Blass noticed something odd. In the field before him, he saw what looked like a fence of trees. One of them was much bigger than the others, but they were all the same species and likely planted at the same time.

His friend told him the big tree grew supposedly without water.

Intrigued, Blass started looking around. What he found surprised him: the topsoil was completely dry, but a dripping faucet in the area had soaked the root system underneath the tall tree. He started digging and found an onion- shaped wet zone that kept the ground moist, with almost no surface evaporation.7 “Water droplets raising a giant tree hit me like a mosquito in the mind of the evil Titus,” Blass would later say.8

Over the course of the next twenty years, Blass often thought about that tree. By dripping water slowly to the base of a plant, he believed he could revolutionize the way farmers irrigate their crops. Yet his idea would have to wait, as Blass was slated to play a key role in the birth of the State of Israel. “I became busy with other plans,” he recalled. “But the drop of water that grew a gigantic tree refused to leave me. It stayed trapped and sleeping in my heart.”9

The Perfect Drip
From the 1930s through 1950s, Blass became one of Israel’s leading water experts. When he moved to Palestine, there wasn’t much infrastructure. People would dig for water, pump it to the surface, and then carry it short distances or send it through pipes. And with millions of Jews making their way back to their ancestral homeland, it was clear to Israel’s founding fathers that the country would need to provide these immigrants with a number of services.

It was only after he left government service in 1956 that Blass was able to dedicate himself to drip irrigation. In the late 1950s, he started playing with several different prototypes. He started working with metal pipes, mimicking what he had seen with the row of trees in the 1930s.10 Yet during World War II, there was a worldwide rubber shortage, and that gave rise to a new substance: plastic.

For several years, Blass experimented with various widths and discovered plastic tubing was a cheap and flexible way to deliver water.11 In 1960, Blass carried out his first successful experiment in an orchard of seventy trees in the city of Rehovot. He used a third less water to irrigate the plants.12 Later trials showed drip irrigation was far more effective than flood irrigation and sprinkler systems, regardless of the plant it was watering or its location. Not only did it use less water, but the crop yield was significantly higher, too.

Decades after Blass had come up with his idea, drip irrigation was poised to change farming practices not only in Israel, but also around the world.

Blass was not the first person to try drip irrigation. The Chinese experimented with drip methods in the first century BCE. In 1860, researchers in Germany tried using underground clay pipe irrigation. The first recorded use of plastic occurred in Australia in the 1920s.

But Blass utilized a different system that involved a dripper with a long, spiral micro-tubing water passageway that slowed the velocity of the water. A few years later, he improved his design by creating a two- piece dripper.13 For the better part of the early 1960s, Blass talked about his invention to anyone who would listen. Along the way, he met Dan Goldberg, a Hebrew University professor in the Department of Soil and Water Sciences. The two conducted a number of experiments together. But most people did not take his ideas seriously. Perhaps it was his gruff temperament, or maybe, as with other inventions, changing the status quo met stiff resistance.

Blass decided to leverage his old contacts at the Ministry of Agriculture, and the government began conducting a number of experiments in an almond orchard. The first resulted in complete failure when the ministry placed the plastic tubes incorrectly in the soil (the tree roots grew into the drippers and blocked the outflow of water). Luckily for Blass, one of the ministry officers succeeded in convincing his colleagues to carry out the experiment again. This time, officials placed the drippers at the base of the trees, and as predicted, the plants flourished, grew with less water, and produced a higher yield.14 But even with the seal of approval from the ministry, his invention did not catch on.

By 1964, however, word started to get around that a “pensioner” (the Israeli term for a retiree) had some kind of system to save water.15 The head of the Kibbutz Industrial Association, Aryeh Bahir, told Kibbutz Hatzerim’s treasurer, Uri Werber, about Blass’s idea.16 Bahir knew that Kibbutz Hatzerim was looking to start a new business, and that it could not survive on agriculture alone. Luckily for Blass, the Hatzerim leadership wanted an industry with a strong connection to the land, recalls Werber. They also wanted women and the elderly to be able to play a role.17

Originally created to help farmers working in desert- like conditions, Blass’s rudimentary device was a micro-tube wound around a sixteen-millimeter pipe. Because of the water’s friction at the entry point, the dripper produced a flow rate of three to five drops per hour.

The kibbutz members loved the idea of saving water and getting a larger yield. They didn’t care that it wasn’t in vogue.

Blass was skeptical. He believed in his invention, but doubted the kibbutz could manufacture his dripper and monetize the idea.18 Werber, the community’s treasurer, was persistent. “I was lucky enough, and maybe a little clever enough to go with my feelings and instincts,” he says.19

Within a few months, Blass signed his contract with the kibbutz. In January 1966, the company began manufacturing drippers. Its name: Netafim, or drops of water.

Drowning the Competition

After the first growing season, the kibbutz discovered that Blass was right; the results were exactly as he predicted. Some members even wanted to keep this innovation a secret in order to ensure Hatzerim closed as much business as possible.20 In August 1966, the company completed its first sale to grape growers in the settlement of Bnei Atarot. The world’s first commercial dripper had arrived.21

That same year, a Ministry of Agriculture official convinced four Arava Valley settlements to conduct an experiment, pitting their existing sprinkler system against Blass’s technology. Within one month, the sprinkler- irrigated vegetables failed to grow, while the drip- irrigated vegetables – tomatoes and sweet peppers – yielded a phenomenal crop. This experiment and those that followed helped the Arava settlements become one of Europe’s leading suppliers of winter fruits and vegetables.22

As Blass’s invention received more recognition in the Arava, the area’s settlements used Netafim’s product to grow melons and watermelons, date palms and flowers, in both fields and greenhouses. 23 Later Netafim was the first company to sell micro-drippers to irrigate cotton and sugar cane.24 “When we first introduced drip irrigation, everyone in Israeli academia explained to us why it can’t work, and why the method would just kill the plants,” says former Netafim CEO Oded Winkler. “It took us over five years [after the company was founded] to prove that such a position was just theory, not reality.”25

Once the company became commercially successful, Blass filed for a patent in 1966 to protect his intellectual property.26 In the early 1970s, he sold 100 percent of his rights to Netafim,27 receiving a large sum of money, and lived the rest of his life in comfort.28

A few years later, however, he seemed upset about his decision. The inventor got together with Uri Werber, the kibbutz treasurer, and told him, “Here sits the man who robbed me. I didn’t think right, and he took advantage of that.” Taken by surprise, Werber responded, “The only thing that I did was . . . believe in your invention and idea more than you did.”29

He wasn’t the only one. There was also a young upstart engineer who revolutionized the company, turning it from a small, kibbutz-run
business into a worldwide water empire.

The Groundbreaker

Growing up, Rafi Mehoudar was anything but extraordinary. He was just another scrawny, dark- haired kid whose family had been living in Jerusalem for twelve generations.30 His teachers felt he had limited intelligence. “Your son doesn’t understand chemistry,” they told his mother. “Maybe he will turn out to be great plumber.”31

What helped Mehoudar, however, was his father, a failed businessman, who knew how to draw out his son’s creative side. He had magic trick sets with items that included exploding cigarettes and cups that would spill their contents on anyone who drank from them.

He would entertain the young Mehoudar with his magic and make him laugh. When young Rafi turned thirteen, his father bought him a tool kit that allowed him to build a solar energy collector and a small desalinization water station.32

After high school, like all Israelis, Mehoudar was drafted into the military, entering a special program that allowed its members to pursue academic studies along with military service. He enrolled in Israel’s prestigious Technion, where he became intrigued by the ways humans can conserve water. Not only did he invent his own sprinkler irrigation system, he also worked on a toilet that he hoped would reduce the amount of water people flush.33

When he left the military, the Ministry of Defense’s science office asked him to come back part- time to develop water- saving tools.

During his time there, he created a number of pressure regulators for sprinklers,34 and the industry took notice. In 1972, Netafim’s then CEO, Oded Winkler, approached Mehoudar. He asked the young engineer to join the company’s research and development department. But Mehoudar initially demurred; he thought many kibbutz members weren’t open to new ideas. “I was quite suspicious starting to work with Hatzerim,” he recalls. “Then I found that [they were] another animal. The people in Hatzerim that I met were very open to external ideas.”35 Mehoudar finally agreed to work with Netafim, but only as a consultant who was compensated with royalties for his innovations.

Shortly after Hatzerim and Mehoudar struck a deal, Winkler gave the young inventor a list of ten drippers that he wanted him to develop. Some were sensitive to temperature changes, while others worked only with the push of a button. It took Mehoudar six months to find solutions to nine out of the ten requests. He then presented Netafim with blueprints and products for these products. The company carried out his plans, and many of the drippers are still sold today.

As Ran Maidan, the company’s current chief executive, puts it: “Simcha [Blass] invented the dripper, but Rafi really developed [it].”36

Our Number One Enemy Is Ignorance

By 2050, the world’s population will balloon to roughly nine billion people.37 In fifteen years, experts say half of the world’s inhabitants could be living in areas where there isn’t enough safe water to drink.38

The result will likely be a surge in demand for food.39 This means that the world will need to grow more food with less water. To meet thisneed, humanity will have to find innovative ways to use existing land and water resources, which are already under heavy stress. “Water isn’t just water,” says Seth M. Siegel, author of Let There Be Water. “In the case of Israel, it’s also an inspiring example of how vision and leadership can change a nation and transform the world.”40

Less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water is potable. The vast majority of this precious resource is used for agricultural irrigation – over half of which is wasted due to inefficiency.41 One way to conserve is to change the way we irrigate our crops, and the most efficient method is drip irrigation. “Water is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing,” says Oded Distel, director of the Israel NewTech program at the Ministry of Economy and Industry.

“Israel’s holistic approach can serve as a model to overcome the global water crisis.”42

Today, Netafim is playing a key role in feeding the chronically undernourished and cultivating more crops. The company helps farmers, cooperatives, and governments conserve more water for the greater benefit of all. Netafim has grown into a global powerhouse with more than 30 percent of the global drip irrigation market, and it sells its products in more than 110 countries. “Our number one competition is ignorance,” says Naty Barak, the company’s chief sustainability officer.43

When Mehoudar stepped off the stage that night at Mount Herzl, he shook his head in disbelief. What he and Simcha Blass had launched helps feed nearly a billion people. “And this is just the beginning,” says Mehoudar.44 Blass may have died a bitter man, but what he and Mehoudar created has improved the lives of many – one drop at a time.