2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Environment; General Geography

Irrigation is the artificial application of water to the soil. In crop production it is mainly used to replace missing rainfall in periods of drought, but also to protect plants against frost. Additionally irrigation helps to suppress weed growing in rice fields. In contrast, agriculture that relies only on direct rainfall is sometimes referred to as dryland farming or as rainfed farming.

High-altitude aerial view of irrigation in the Heart of the Sahara ( 22°16′21″N, 28°44′55″E)
High-altitude aerial view of irrigation in the Heart of the Sahara ( 22°16′21″N, 28°44′55″E)

History of irrigation

An example of irrigation system common in Indian subcontinent. Artistic impression on the banks of Dal Lake, Kashmir, India.
An example of irrigation system common in Indian subcontinent. Artistic impression on the banks of Dal Lake, Kashmir, India.
A double waterwheel lifting water for irrigation at the Fayûm oasis, Egypt.
A double waterwheel lifting water for irrigation at the Fayûm oasis, Egypt.
Inside a quanat tunnel at Turpan, China.
Inside a quanat tunnel at Turpan, China.

Archaeological investigation has identified evidence of irrigation in Mesopotamia and Egypt as far back as the 6th millennium BCE, where barley was grown in areas where the natural rainfall was insufficient to support such a crop.

In the Zana Valley of the Andes Mountains in Peru, archaeologists found remains of three irrigation canals radiocarbon dated from the 4th millennium BCE, the 3rd millennium BCE and the 9th century CE. These canals are the earliest record of irrigation in the New World. Traces of a canal possibly dating from the 5th millennium BCE were found under the 4th millennium canal. ( Dillehay, et al., 2005)

The Indus Valley Civilization in Pakistan and North India (from circa 2600 BCE) also had an early canal irrigation system.

There is evidence of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet III in the twelfth dynasty (about 1800 BCE) using the natural lake of the Fayûm as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons, as the lake swelled annually as caused by the annual flooding of the Nile.

The Qanats, developed in ancient Persia in about 800 BCE, are among the oldest known irrigation methods still in use today. They are now found in Asia, the middle east and north Africa. The system comprises a network of vertical wells and gently sloping tunnels driven into the sides of cliffs and steep hills to tap groundwater.

The irrigation works of ancient Sri Lanka, the earliest dating from about 300 BCE, in the reign of King Pandukabhaya and under continuous development for the next thousand years, were one of the most complex irrigation systems of the ancient world. In addition to underground canals, the Sinhalese were the first to build completely artificial reservoirs to store water. The system was extensively restored and further extended during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu (1153–1186 CE).

In the Szechwan region ancient China the Dujiangyan Irrigation System was built in 250 BCE to irrigate a large area and it still supplies water today.

In fifteenth century Korea the world's first water gauge, woo ryang gyae ( Korean: 우량계), was discovered in 1441 CE. The inventor was Jang Young Sil, a Korean engineer of the Choson Dynasty, under the active direction of the King, Se Jong. It was installed in irrigation tanks as part of a nationwide system to measure and collect rainfall for agricultural applications. With this instrument, planners and farmers could make better use of the information gathered in the survey.

By the middle of the 20th century, the advent of diesel and electric motors led for the first time to systems that could pump groundwater out of major aquifers faster than it was recharged. This can lead to permanent loss of aquifer capacity, decreased water quality, ground subsidence, and other problems. The future of food production in such areas as the North China Plain, the Punjab, and the Great Plains of the US is threatened.

Present extent of irrigation

At the global scale 278.8 Mha (689 million acres) of agricultural land was equipped with irrigation infrastructure around the year 2000. About 68 % of the area equipped for irrigation is located in Asia, 17 % in America, 9 % in Europe, 5 % in Africa and 1 % in Oceania. The largest contiguous areas of high irrigation density are found in North India and Pakistan along the rivers Ganges and Indus, in the Hai He, Huang He and Yangtze basins in China, along the Nile river in Egypt and Sudan, in the Mississippi-Missouri river basin and in parts of California. Smaller irrigation areas are spread across almost all populated parts of the world.

Types of irrigation

Basin flood irrigation of wheat
Basin flood irrigation of wheat

Various types of irrigation techniques differ in how the water obtained from the source is distributed within the field. In general, the goal is to supply the entire field uniformly with water, so that each plant has the amount of water it needs, neither too much nor too little.

Surface irrigation

In surface irrigation systems water is moving over the land by simple gravity flow in order to wet it and to infiltrate into the soil. They can be subdivided into furrow, borderstrip or basin irrigation.

Localized irrigation

Spray Head
Spray Head

Localized irrigation is a system where water is distributed under low pressure through a piped network, in a pre-determined pattern, and applied as a small discharge to each plant or adjacent to it. Drip irrigation, spray or micro-sprinkler irrigation and bubbler irrigation belong to this category of irrigation methods.

Drip, or trickle irrigation

Drip Irrigation - A dripper in action
Drip Irrigation - A dripper in action
Drip Irrigation Layout and its parts
Drip Irrigation Layout and its parts

Water is delivered at or near the root zone of plants, drop by drop. This type of system can be the most water-efficient method of irrigation, if managed properly, since evaporation and runoff are minimized. In modern agriculture, drip irrigation is often combined with plastic mulch, further reducing evaporation, and is also the means of delivery of fertilizer. The process is known as fertigation. Deep percolation, where water moves below the root zone, can occur if a drip system is operated for too long of a duration or if the delivery rate is too high. Drip irrigation methods range from very high-tech and computerized to low-tech and relatively labor-intensive. Lower water pressures are usually needed than for most other types of systems, with the exception of low energy centre pivot systems and surface irrigation systems, and the system can be designed for uniformity throughout a field or for precise water delivery to individual plants in a landscape containing a mix of plant species. Although it is difficult to regulate pressure on steep slopes, pressure compensating emitters are available, so the field does not have to be level. High-tech solutions involve precisely calibrated emitters located along lines of tubing that extend from a computerized set of valves. Both pressure regulation and filtration to remove particles are important. The tubes are usually black (or buried under soil or mulch) to prevent the growth of algae and to protect the polyethylene from degradation due to ultraviolet light. But drip irrigation can also be as low-tech as a porous clay vessel sunk into the soil and occasionally filled from a hose or bucket. Subsurface drip irrigation has been used successfully on lawns, but it is more expensive than a more traditional sprinkler system. Surface drip systems are not cost-effective (or aesthetically pleasing) for lawns and golf courses. Jain Irrigation Systems, Chapin Watermatics, Eurodrip, Plastro Irrigation Systems are major manufacturer of Drip Irrigation Systems.

Sprinkler irrigation

Sprinkler irrigation of blueberries in Plainville, New York.
Sprinkler irrigation of blueberries in Plainville, New York.

In sprinkler or overhead irrigation, water is piped to one or more central locations within the field and distributed by overhead high-pressure sprinklers or guns. A system utilizing sprinklers, sprays, or guns mounted overhead on permanently installed risers is often referred to as a solid-set irrigation system. Higher pressure sprinklers that rotate are called rotors and are driven by a ball drive, gear drive, or impact mechanism. Rotors can be designed to rotate in a full or partial circle. Guns are similar to rotors, except that they generally operate at very high pressures of 40 to 130 lbf/in² (275 to 900 kPa) and flows of 50 to 1200 US gal/min (3 to 76 L/s), usually with nozzle diameters in the range of 0.5 to 1.9 inches (10 to 50 mm). Guns are used not only for irrigation, but also for industrial applications such as dust suppression and logging.

Sprinklers may also be mounted on moving platforms connected to the water source by a hose. Automatically moving wheeled systems known as traveling sprinklers may irrigate areas such as small farms, sports fields, parks, pastures, and cemeteries unattended. Most of these utilize a length of polyethylene tubing wound on a steel drum. As the tubing is wound on the drum powered by the irrigation water or a small gas engine, the sprinkler is pulled across the field. When the sprinkler arrives back at the reel the system shuts off. This type of system is known to most people as a "waterreel" traveling irrigation sprinkler and they are used extensively for dust suppression, irrigation, and land application of waste water. Other travelers use a flat rubber hose that is dragged along behind while the sprinkler platform is pulled by a cable. These cable-type travelers are definitely old technology and their use is limited in today's modern irrigation projects.

Centre pivot irrigation

The hub of a center-pivot irrigation system.
The hub of a centre-pivot irrigation system.

Centre pivot irrigation is a form of sprinkler irrigation consisting of several segments of pipe (usually galvanized steel or aluminium) joined together and supported by trusses, mounted on wheeled towers with sprinklers positioned along its length. The system moves in a circular pattern and is fed with water from the pivot point at the centre of the arc. These systems are common in parts of the United States where terrain is flat.

Center pivot with drop sprinklers. Photo by Gene Alexander, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Centre pivot with drop sprinklers. Photo by Gene Alexander, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Most centre pivot systems now have drops hanging from a u-shaped pipe called a gooseneck attached at the top of the pipe with sprinkler heads that are positioned a few feet (at most) above the crop, thus limiting evaporative losses. Drops can also be used with drag hoses or bubbler's that deposit the water directly on the ground between crops. The crops are planted in a circle to conform to the centre pivot. This type of system is known as LEPA ( Low Energy Precision Application). Originally, most centre pivots were water powered. These were replaced by hydraulic systems ( T-L Irrigation) and electric motor driven systems (Lindsay, Reinke, Valley, Zimmatic). Most systems today are driven by an electric motor mounted low on each span. This drives a reduction gearbox and transverse driveshafts transmit power to another reduction gearbox mounted behind each wheel. Precision controls, some with GPS location and remote computer monitoring, are now available.

Wheel line irrigation system in Idaho. 2001. Photo by Joel McNee, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Wheel line irrigation system in Idaho. 2001. Photo by Joel McNee, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Lateral move (Side roll, Wheel line) irrigation

A series of pipes, each with a wheel of about 1.5 m diameter permanently affixed to its midpoint and sprinklers along its length, are coupled together at one edge of a field. Water is supplied at one end using a large hose. After sufficient water has been applied, the hose is removed and the remaining assembly rotated either by hand or with a purpose-built mechanism, so that the sprinklers move 10m across the field. The hose is reconnected. The process is repeated until the opposite edge of the field is reached. This system is less expensive to install than a center pivot, but much more labor intensive to operate, and it is limited in the amount of water it can carry. Most systems utilize 4 or 5 inch diameter aluminium pipe. One feature of a lateral move system is that it consists of sections that can be easily disconnected. They are most often used for small or oddly-shaped fields, such as those found in hilly or mountainous regions, or in regions where labor is inexpensive.


Sub-irrigation also sometimes called seepage irrigation has been used for many years in field crops in areas with high water tables. It is a method of artificially raising the water table to allow the soil to be moistened from below the plants' root zone. Often those systems are located on permanent grasslands in lowlands or river valleys and combined with drainage infrastructure. A system of pumping stations, canals, weirs and gates allows it to increase or decrease the water level in a network of ditches and the control the water table thereby.

Sub-irrigation is also used in commercial greenhouse production, usually for potted plants. Water is delivered from below, absorbed upwards, and the excess collected for recycling. Typically, a solution of water and nutrients floods a container or flows through a trough for a short period of time, 10-20 minutes, and is then pumped back into a holding tank for reuse. Sub-irrigation in greenhouses requires fairly sophisticated, expensive equipment and management. Advantages are water and nutrient conservation, and labor-saving through lowered system maintenance and automation. It is similar in principle and action to subsurface drip irrigation.

Manual irrigation using buckets or watering cans

These systems have low requirements for infrastructure and technical equipment but need high labor inputs. Irrigation using watering cans is to be found for example in peri-urban agriculture around large cities in some African countries.

How an in-ground irrigation system works

Most commercial and residential irrigation systems are " in ground" systems, which means that everything is buried in the ground. With the pipes, sprinklers, and irrigation valves being hidden, it makes for a cleaner, more presentable landscape without garden hoses or other items having to be moved around manually.

Controllers, zones, and valves

Most Irrigation systems are divided into zones. A zone is a single Irrigation Valve and one or a group of sprinklers that are connected by pipes. Irrigation Systems are divided into zones because there is usually not enough pressure and available flow to run sprinklers for an entire yard or sports field at once. Each zone valve has a solenoid on it that is controlled via wire by an Irrigation Controller. The Irrigation Controller is either a mechanical or electrical device that signals a zone to turn on at a specific time and keeps it on for a specified amount of time. "Smart Controller" is a recent term used to describe a controller that is capable of adjusting the watering time by itself in response to current environmental conditions. The smart controller determines current conditions by means of historic weather data for the local area, a moisture sensor, weather station, or a combination of these.


When a zone comes on, the water flows through the lateral lines and ultimately ends up at the irrigation Sprinkler heads. Most sprinklers have pipe thread inlets on the bottom of them which allows a fitting and the pipe to be attached to them. The sprinklers are usually installed with the top of the head flush with the ground surface. When the water is pressurized, the head will pop up out of the ground and water the desired area until the valve closes and shuts off that zone. Once there is no more water pressure in the lateral line, the sprinkler head will retract back into the ground.

Problems in irrigation

  • Competition for surface water rights.
  • Depletion of underground aquifers.
  • Ground subsidence (e.g. New Orleans, Louisiana)
  • Buildup of toxic salts on soil surface in areas of high evaporation. This requires either leaching to remove these salts and a method of drainage to carry the salts away or use of mulch to minimize evaporation.
  • Overirrigation because of poor distribution uniformity or management wastes water, chemicals, and may lead to water pollution.

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