What is Irrigation – How it was Developed and How We Use it Today

By Tony Ware on 12th January 2021

What is irrigation? The definition that best works with this article is that irrigation is the practice of artificially providing water for the land, taking into account the crop requirement throughout the “crop-period,” in order to satisfy the crop’s total nourishment requirement.

The crop can be anything, including kinds of wheat and grasses, fruit and vegetables. All require water to thrive, and when that water isn’t naturally available, it must be introduced by artificial means – in other words, through irrigation. The first thing that springs to most people’s minds when the word “irrigation” is mentioned is a connection with farming, so let’s start there.

The Science of Irrigation in Farming

The earliest records of irrigation go back more than 8,000 years. The technique employed then forms an important basic of modern agricultural irrigation practice today.

Where it All Began

The first irrigation systems were developed around 6000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia; an area often referred to as “the cradle of civilisation.” The name “Mesopotamia,” means “the land between rivers,” and in this instance, the rivers concerned were the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Today, this area of land is situated mostly in what we now call Iraq. Back through the mists of times, the inhabitants of this area of land were the Sumerians. They were the first people to invent writing, a system of government, and irrigation.

The Main Types of Irrigation

There are essentially two main kinds of irrigation – surface and sub-surface. Each of these types, in turn, breaking down into different sub-sections. So, let’s kick-off with surface irrigation and its derivatives.

Surface Irrigation

The first type of surface irrigation we are taking a look at is flood irrigation.

Flood Surface Irrigation

Also referred to as Inundation Irrigation, Flood Irrigation can be explained as an artificial method that floods the land on purpose. It saturates the soil, and the occasional rainfall that follows afterwards is enough to grow crops to maturity.

The Egyptians used water from the River Nile, which flooded for several months of the year. They recoursed its water to their fields, enabling them to cultivate crops that otherwise would have been impossible.

Around the same period, water from the Euphrates and Tigris was recoursed in Mesopotamia via the series of canals they dug, in what is thought of as the first ever engineering waterworks.

These are the earliest example of flood irrigation which is categorised as an uncontrolled irrigation system.

Lift Surface Irrigation

With lift irrigation, the water gets lifted via the use of mechanical interventions such as pumps, etc. Source water from wells and tube wells is transported to nourish crops at a higher level.

A pump spraying water on crops

Sub-Surface Irrigation

Sub-surface irrigation is a method whereby the top surface of the soil isn’t not made wet. Water is delivered underground in an action known as capillarity. This type of irrigation happens either naturally or artificially.

Natural Sub-Surface Irrigation Methodology

Natural sub-surface irrigation occurs in areas that lie close to water sources such as canals, lakes,, rivers or wells, whereby water leaches into the surrounding soil, nourishing crops naturally.

Artificial Sub-Surface Irrigation

At its most basic, this type of irrigation delivers water to the sub-soil through a system of pipes that have holes punched along their length. Water “leaks” through the holes, irrigating the root systems of nearby crops. The water can also supplement the level of underground water, helping to nourish the crops.

Flood Irrigation

Flood irrigation is still used today. The application that first springs to mind with most people would be the flooded paddy fields used to grow rice crops. There are other applications. Wherever the topography is both level and flat, flood irrigation can be used to water crops like small cereal type grains, and hay.

Basin and Border Irrigation

Flood irrigation is also known as Basin and Border Irrigation. Essentially, flat land is surrounded by banks of earth to block the escape of water. Basin irrigation is usually used to grow tree crops, with each basin being proportionate to the size of the tree.

With Border Irrigation, the land is sub-divided up into rectangular basins. The water level can be controlled to overfill and run off into the next bay.

Basin irrigation can be quite a scientific application, with farmers using laser levelling and ground grading. Australian farmers use a “Drain Back Level Basin Irrigation System” to control the water flow, and using this methodology, they rotate rice and wheat crops.

Furrow and Surge Irrigation

Another variant of flood irritation is furrow irrigation. This is when flood water is kept confined within furrows. The crops get planted on the top of the ridges. This irrigation method is used for growing crops such as cotton, maise, and sugar cane, and is also sometimes employed in citrus and stone fruit orchards, vineyards, and some tomato farming.

Another form of furrow irrigation is surge irrigation. This is where the water supply is pulsed on and off.

Water in a ditch in a field

Surface Irrigation in action Today

Surface Irrigation is a common form of irrigation employed today, by farmers, homeowners, and facilities like golf courses and parks. Here are the various types most commonly used

Sprinkler Irrigation

Sprinkler irrigation can be employed to deliver water to crops in almost any size, shape or gradient of field. These systems are used in agriculture in four basic ways.

  • The Hand Move Pipe System – With this variant, a sprinkler is affixed to the end of an aluminium of PVC pipe. Pipe length is typically 30 or 40 feet. Each pipe stands vertically, and they are usually installed in a line about forty feet from each other. Because of this, they are known as laterals. Hand move sprinkler systems are cheaper to install and easier to maintain than other types of sprinkler systems. However, they are more labour-intensive.
  • The Solid Set Sprinkler System – A Solid Set system is a system whereby a PVC pipe is permanently installed in the ground. Vertical risers are attached, each with a sprinkler unit at the top. The distance between each riser can vary from 40 to more than 100 feet. This distance is determined by the type and size of the sprinkler unit.
  • Centre Pivot Irrigation Systems have horizontal tubular arms, along which sprinkler units are installed. The arm is fixed to a central pivot, so it rotates horizontally on its axis, thus distributing water in a circular arc. These systems can be manufactured to order according to the size of the field or the area the irrigation is to cover. Early models were water-powered, but Today’s units are powered using electric motors.
  • Hose Reel or Travelling Gun Irrigation Systems – These types of systems have one big sprinkler unit attached to a hose and mounted on a cart. A tractor is used to pull the mobile system around the field, unreeling the hose as it goes and delivering water to the crops.

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation delivers water to the crops, according to how much water a particular crop requires. It is the most popular irrigation system in the world, especially in arid regions where water conservations and efficiency are particularly important. It delivers water straight to the crop’s root zone at the right time and in the right quantity, thus facilitating improved crop yields, at the same time conserving energy, fertiliser, and water.

Water and nutrients are distributed across the growing area by small diameter pipes with precision-engineered drip points distributed along their length. Each dripper delivers water or water plus nutrients etc. evenly along the entire length, promoting higher quality, higher quantity crops.

Drip irrigation can be tailored to the task, be it the irrigation of a whole field or several fields of crops, or a home garden.

The Home Gardener and Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is by far the best method of irrigating plants in a home garden. It is relatively cheap, but even so, gardeners will still recover much of the initial outlay in years to come through of reduced water bills. The principles of drip irrigation for the garden are much the same as those for farming although on a much smaller scale of course.

Porous Pipe

There is another possibility for the home gardener which deserves an airing, and that is something called porous pipe irrigation.

Porous pipe is totally porous all along its entire length. This means that water can seep through exactly where it is needed, following careful placement of the piping. Installation-wise, it can be laid on the surface of the soil, or below any mulch, or just beneath the earth.

Bearing in mind that the object of the exercise is to deliver water to the plants’ root systems, these placements, especially the sub-soil option, are perfect. Whereas surface drip feeding or just above the surface already minimises water wastage through evaporation, sub-soil placement rules it out entirely, making it the best possible solution.

A porous tube irrigation system is ideal. It delivers gentle and precise amount of life-giving water for raised bed areas, fruit and veggie plots (including allotments), cloches, and greenhouses. It also has the advantage that it is incredibly easy to install.

Golf Course Irrigation

Sprinklers spraying water on a golf course

When it comes to the irrigation of golf courses, it goes without saying that flood irrigation would be totally inappropriate. But so too is drip irrigation, which is designed for targeting restricted areas. Golf club greens and fairways are large expanses of grass, so drip irrigation is out of the question. It has to be surface, sprinkler driven irrigation.

The exact and individual nature of golf courses means a unique set of designs on a course-by-course basis. It doesn’t matter if we are talking 9 holes, or 18. The land area involved is considerable and will probably include gradients. Then, of course, there are the various elements of that land and the use to which it is put – fairways, greens and tees. Each element will probably have its own characteristics and watering needs. To be successful. an appropriate irrigation system must deliver plentiful watering and in order to will require:

  • Ongoing maintenance
  • Ground/Greenkeeper management.

The actual sprinkler irrigating system design will require, and have to take into account:

  • Its own unique irrigation needs
  • Careful placement of emitters (using Valve in Head Rotors)
  • Isolation or shut-off valves
  • Source of water
  • Main/Lateral line pipework
  • Positioning of spot elevations (Where terrain varies)
  • Pipe sizing
  • Flow zone layout
  • Designs troubleshooting

Even here in England, where we always seem to get more than our fair share of rain, it’s impossible to predict long term when it will rain and how heavy the downpour will be. We just cannot leave it up to Mother Nature to do the job.

Tailoring the Software

The only way of stopping the grass from wilting and losing its rigidity is by timely irrigation. But the key here is control. That is why it is so important to design the irrigation system properly, position the sprinklers in the optimum positions, and most importantly of all, have the right software with a user-friendly interface to manage the watering down to the last drop.

When all is said and done, the irrigation system you put in place as just as important in terms of golf course maintenance, as the mowers you use to cut the fairways, greens, and tees.




Flood and Furrow Irrigation | World Agriculture (agrotechnomarket.com)

What is Surface Irrigation? How Does It Work, Types – Civil Engineering (civiltoday.com)

6 Types of irrigation System used in Agriculture Worldwide (farmpractices.com)




Contact Information

TWL Irrigation Ltd
Sales Office
Wilsonwells Croft, Crimond
Fraserburgh, AB43 8YH

Tel: +44 (0)1346 531193
E-Mail: sales@twl-irrigation.com
Support: support@twl-irrigation.com

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