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Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation is sometimes called trickle irrigation and involves dripping water onto the soil at very low rates (2-20 litres/hour) from a system of small diameter plastic pipes fitted with outlets called emitters or drippers. Water is applied close to plants so that only part of the soil in which the roots grow is wetted, unlike surface and sprinkler irrigation, which involves wetting the whole soil profile. With drip irrigation water, applications are more frequent (usually every 1-3 days) than with other methods and this provides a very favourable high moisture level in the soil in which plants can flourish.

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Suitable crops

Drip irrigation is most suitable for row crops (vegetables, soft fruit), tree and vine crops where one or more emitters can be provided for each plant. Generally only high value crops are considered because of the high capital costs of installing a drip system.

Suitable slopes

Drip irrigation is adaptable to any farmable slope. Normally the crop would be planted along contour lines and the water supply pipes (laterals) would be laid along the contour also. This is done to minimize changes in emitter discharge as a result of land elevation changes.

Suitable soils

Drip irrigation is suitable for most soils. On clay soils water must be applied slowly to avoid surface water ponding and runoff. On sandy soils higher emitter discharge rates will be needed to ensure adequate lateral wetting of the soil.

Suitable irrigation water

One of the main problems with drip irrigation is blockage of the emitters. All emitters have very small waterways ranging from 0.2-2.0 mm in diameter and these can become blocked if the water is not clean. Thus it is essential for irrigation water to be free of sediments. If this is not so then filtration of the irrigation water will be needed.

Blockage may also occur if the water contains algae, fertilizer deposits and dissolved chemicals which precipitate such as calcium and iron. Filtration may remove some of the materials but the problem may be complex to solve and requires an experienced engineer or consultation with the equipment dealer.

Drip irrigation is particularly suitable for water of poor quality (saline water). Dripping water to individual plants also means that the method can be very efficient in water use. For this reason it is most suitable when water is scarce.

Drip System Layout

A typical drip irrigation system is shown in Figure 61 and consists of the following components:

Pump unit
Control head
Main and submain lines
Emitters or drippers.

The pump unit takes water from the source and provides the right pressure for delivery into the pipe system.

The control head consists of valves to control the discharge and pressure In the entire system. It may also have filters to clear the water. Common types of filter include screen filters and graded sand filters which remove fine material suspended in the water. Some control head units contain a fertilizer or nutrient tank. These slowly add a measured dose of fertilizer into the water during irrigation. This is one of the major advantages of drip irrigation over other methods.

Mainlines, submains and laterals supply water from the control head into the fields. They are usually made from PVC or polyethylene hose and should be buried below ground because they easily degrade when exposed to direct solar radiation. Lateral pipes are usually 13-32 mm diameter.

Emitters or drippers are devices used to control the discharge of water from the lateral to the plants. They are usually spaced more than 1 metre apart with one or more emitters used for a single plant such as a tree. For row crops more closely spaced emitters may be used to wet a strip of soil. Many different emitter designs have been produced in recent years. The basis of design is to produce an emitter which will provide a specified constant discharge which does not vary much with pressure changes, and does not block easily. Various types of emitters are shown in Figure 61 and Figure 62. Figure 63 gives an example of sublateral loops.

A drip system is usually permanent. When remaining In place during more than one season, a system is considered permanent. Thus it can easily be automated. This is very useful when labour is scarce or expensive to hire. However, automation requires specialist skills and so this approach is unsuitable if such skills are not available.

Water can be applied frequently (every day if required) with drip irrigation and this provides very favourable conditions for crop growth. However, if crops are used to being watered each day they may only develop shallow roots and If the system breaks down, the crop may begin to suffer very quickly.


  1. High water application efficiency and lower labour costs
  2. Minimised fertiliser/nutrient loss due to localised application and reduced leaching
  3. Ability to irrigate irregular shaped fields. Levelling of the field not necessary
  4. Allows safe use of recycled (waste-) water
  5. Moisture within the root zone can be maintained at field capacity and minimised soil erosion
  6. Soil type plays less important role in frequency of irrigation
  7. Highly uniform distribution of water i.e., controlled by output of each nozzle
  8. Usually operated at lower pressure than other types of pressurised irrigation, reducing energy costs
drip irrigation bd

At a Glance

Factsheet Block Body

Working PrincipleWith drip irrigation, water is conveyed under pressure through a pipe system to the fields, where it drips slowly onto the soil through emitters or drippers, which are located close to the plants.
Capacity/AdequacyIt is applicable to almost every crop prediction, especially in arid, dry areas.
CostsCommercial system for industrial production is very expensive. Small-scale or self-made systems are inexpensive
Self-help CompatibilityExpert design is required for commercial systems. Small-scale drip systems can be operated by trained farmers.
O&MFlush piping system once a month to prevent clogging and check if the pipes are not covered by soil/foliage or damaged.
ReliabilityVery reliable if operated and maintained well.
Main strengthHigh water application efficiency.
Main weaknessWater must be well settled and particle-free because of the high risk of clogging.
fogging irrigation

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