Dr. Hillel has pioneered a method of bringing water to crops in arid land regions

While leading nations of the world are engaged in conflicts over the entire range of physical resources, from rare earth minerals to oil, this week the U.S. recognised the importance of a resource that matters much more to the vast numbers of the poor the world over — water.

It was recognition of the importance of efficient water use in agricultural practices that undergirded the announcement of this year's winner of World Food Prize (WFP), Israeli scientist Daniel Hillel.

Dr. Hillel was given the prestigious award, established in 1987 by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Green Revolution champion Norman Borlaug, for pioneering a “radically innovative way of bringing water to crops in arid and dry-land regions.”

Speaking at a ceremony on Tuesday at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her keynote address: “We have tried to focus the government's attention and the world's attention on the importance of getting ahead of what will be a devastating crisis if we are not smarter and more purposeful in addressing these issues.”

She added that it was especially fitting that the WFP honoured an individual who understood the critical role water played in agriculture and the importance of “using every last drop efficiently.”

A selection committee of experts from around the world oversees the nomination and selection process, and is chaired by renowned Indian agricultural scientist Professor M.S. Swaminathan, who was the first World Food Prize laureate.

Announcing Dr. Hillel's selection, President of the World Food Prize Foundation Ambassador Kenneth Quinn emphasised the broader contributions to regional peace that emerged from the scientist's work.

Bridging divisions

“Dr. Hillel's work and motivation has been to bridge such divisions and to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East by advancing a breakthrough achievement addressing a problem that so many countries share in common: water scarcity,” he said.

Dr. Hillel will be formally presented with the $250,000 award in October in Des Moines, Iowa.

Dr. Hillel's path-breaking work, which could well be of high relevance to agriculture-dominated economies such as India, comprises a method known as micro-irrigation, which is said to maximise efficient water usage in agriculture.

It does so via the application of water in small but continuous amounts directly to plant roots, dramatically cutting the amount of water needed to nourish crops, maintaining their consistent health and resulting in higher yields to feed more people, the WFP Foundation said.

This reflects a major shift from prevailing methods in many developing countries, where farmers typically apply large amounts of water in brief periodic episodes of flooding to saturate their fields, followed by longer periods of drying out the soil.

In a statement released after his selection, Dr. Hillel said: “The task of improving the sustainable management of the Earth's finite and vulnerable soil, water, and energy resources for the benefit of humanity while sustaining the natural biotic community and its overall environmental integrity is an ongoing and increasingly urgent challenge for our generation and for future generations.”