Aug. 24, 2018
Reconciling higher freshwater demands with finite freshwater resources remains one of the great policy dilemmas. Given that crop irrigation constitutes 70% of global water extractions, which contributes up to 40% of globally available calories (1), governments often support increases in irrigation efficiency (IE), promoting advanced technologies to improve the “crop per drop.” This provides private benefits to irrigators and is justified, in part, on the premise that increases in IE “save” water for reallocation to other sectors, including cities and the environment. Yet substantial scientific evidence (2) has long shown that increased IE rarely delivers the presumed public-good benefits of increased water availability. Decision-makers typically have not known or understood the importance of basin-scale water accounting or of the behavioral responses of irrigators to subsidies to increase IE. We show that to mitigate global water scarcity, increases in IE must be accompanied by robust water accounting and measurements, a cap on extractions, an assessment of uncertainties, the valuation of trade-offs, and a better understanding of the incentives and behavior of irrigators.