The Man Who Made the Deserts Bloom
Wed, 09/08/2010
Staff Writer
With drip irrigation, water was sent through perforated pipes and fed slowly, drip by drip, to plant roots.
With drip irrigation, water was sent through perforated pipes and fed slowly, drip by drip, to plant roots.

If there is such a thing as rock star status in the world of soil physics, then Daniel Hillel has attained it. As a pioneer in the field, the 80-year-old Israeli scientist can still walk into a conference anywhere in the world and fall prey to a veritable stampede of oncoming fans. Graduate students, agricultural engineers, climatologists, political scientists—all of their work his has somehow affected.

“He is probably the most well-known soil scientist in the world,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University, and a former graduate student of Hillel’s herself.

Despite the wonk-ish fame, Hillel has not rested on his laurels. Quite the contrary; this fall he will publish his 24th book, a guide for specialists, co-authored with Rosenzweig, on the impact of climate change on water management. And as he has been doing for the last decade, he will publish another book for a more general audience, titled “Our Living Environment: A Modern-Day Guide to the Perplexed.”

Though Hillel was an early spokesman warning of the perils of global warming—particularly as the World Bank’s first environmental consultant in the 1980s—the recent rise in climate change consciousness has led him to redouble his efforts. “I’m not a gloom and doom person,” Hillel said in an interview from his home near Haifa. But he believes it’s “a serious problem that we have to address.”

He added that even despite the recent University of East Anglia controversy over suppressed evidence—what some referred to as “Climategate”—and the uncertainty about global warming’s full effects, “We need to apply the precautionary principle of doing something about it. To err is human,” he said. “Mistakes have been made, the science is not perfect, but we have to work in an atmosphere of incomplete knowledge.”

Global warming may be taking up more of his time these days, but much of his work is still rooted in soil and water physics. Hillel is most famous for devel- oping drip irrigation, a process that revolutionized agriculture by limiting the amount of water needed to maximize food production. “Drip irrigation is very important because it’s one of the most efficient ways to irrigate arid lands,” said Stefan Deconinck, a senior research fellow at the Center for Security and Defense Studies in Brussels and an expert on water issues in the Middle East.

Water scarcity has been an acute concern in the Middle East for ages. But until Hillel’s work on drip irrigation, which began in the 1950s when he was head of soil technology research for the Israeli government, crops were often watered by flood irrigation. The process was extremely wasteful, however, as large amounts of water evaporated while it slowly seeped down into plant roots.

But drip irrigation changed that. “Nobody thought to try the opposite—not to deliver water in large quantities infrequently, but [to deliver it] in small quan- tities more frequently, even continuously,” Hillel said. With drip irrigation, water was sent through perforated pipes and fed slowly, drip by drip, to plant roots. In a land perennially deprived of water, the process made Israeli agricul- ture profoundly more efficient.

Then, a fortuitous encounter with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had a significant impact on Hillel’s career. A year after Hillel helped establish the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev highlands, in 1952, Ben-Gurion toured the region with his wife.

“He just fell in love with the settlement and decided to join it as a member,” said Hillel. Ben-Gurion would eventually retire and be buried at Sde Boker. But even before then, he lived on the kibbutz during breaks from politics. “I was assigned to put him to work,” Hillel said. “It’s funny but true—I was Ben-Gurion’s boss.”

Age-wise, Hillel and Ben-Gurion were nearly four decades apart—the scientist in his 20s, the statesman in his 60s—but their growing friendship led Ben-Gurion to send Hillel on world trips promoting drip irrigation in developing countries. “I went straight from the Middle East to the tropics of Southeast Asia,” Hillel, said, noting that his first assignment was in Burma, in 1956.

In subsequent years, Hillel worked for international agencies—the World Bank, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development— on similar missions, promoting water-use efficiency in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

Simultaneously, Hillel was establishing a career in academia, teaching at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he earned his doctorate in soil physics; the University of Massachusetts; Columbia University and elsewhere. He has written the seminal textbooks on soil and water science, now used by scores of universities and translated into 10 languages. And he has had an equally important role spreading that knowledge beyond the ivory tower with his work for international agencies.

“He’s really is the father of sustain-able water management,” said Columbia’s Rosenzweig.

In the past decade, he has greatly expanded his range. He has applied his in tellectual curiosity and literary talent— his academic writing is often praised for its clarity—into a host of books aimed beyond the scientific community.

The first, “Rivers of Eden: The Struggle for Water and Peace in the Middle East,” published by Oxford University Press in 1994, detailed the effects that water scarcity had on politics. Hillel was partly inspired to write the book because he thought too much time was wasted arguing over resources. Instead, he believed governments should be cooperat- ing over the use of whatever resources they had.

“I’m a fervent believer in peace,” he said. “We should be working together to better the environment because it’s been abused here for generation after generation.”

Deconinck, the political scientist in Belgium, said that “Rivers of Eden” and other books like it were a boon to political scientists. It was not until environmental scientists, starting in the 1990s, began arguing for the relevance of their field to geopolitics that political scientists took the environment seriously. Even if their political arguments were sometimes flimsy, their effect on the field was nonetheless substantial. “It opened the eyes of social scientists to say, ‘Whoa, there’s something going on here,’” said Deconinck.

In 2006, Hillel brought his environmental expertise to biblical history in the much-discussed book, “The Natural History of the Bible: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures,” published by Columbia University Press. Much in the way that Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” showed how the environment helped shape human societies, Hillel argued that similar forces were at play on the religion of biblical Jews.

Perhaps most provocatively, he argued that the very idea of monotheism grew out of the ancients Hebrews’ wandering through various ecological environments. In each new place Jews encountered societies with gods deeply entwined with natural forces; for in- stance, in regions dependent on the rivers to sustain agricultural life, like Egyptians living near the Nile, the gods of water and rain were the highest ones praised. In pastoral regions where herding livestock was a society’s central occupation, the gods of animals were most important.

“The Israelites traveled all these lands and adapted parts of it, and discarded others,” Hillel said. Ultimately, over many generations, the idea of an abstract and unified God that encompassed all these different environments took shape.

“They encountered all these trials and tribulations,” Hillel said, “and they needed to appeal to some higher force that would protect them.” And thus monotheism was born.

At present, Hillel is finishing up his next general interest book, “Our Living Environment,” which will be published by the University of California Press next year. Much like “The Natural History of the Bible,” it blends his scientific expertise with his general intellectual interests, too.

And it’s worth noting that those interests are deeply personal too. Hillel lives not far from Haifa, where he says, “I can see 40 miles of the Mediterranean coast.” He grows mangoes and avocadoes on a farm nearby using a drip irrigation system he helped pioneer. Musing on the effect global warming might have for his own crops and those on the surrounding region, he said: “In a warmer climate the need for water management becomes increasingly important.” It is not surprising that he is then, as he said, “busier than ever.”

Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for The Jewish Week, and runs the paper’s “Well-Versed” blog: www. thejewishweek.com.