Articles | Volume 19, issue 7
Research article
10 Jul 2015
Research article |  | 10 Jul 2015

Water savings potentials of irrigation systems: global simulation of processes and linkages

J. Jägermeyr, D. Gerten, J. Heinke, S. Schaphoff, M. Kummu, and W. Lucht

Abstract. Global agricultural production is heavily sustained by irrigation, but irrigation system efficiencies are often surprisingly low. However, our knowledge of irrigation efficiencies is mostly confined to rough indicative estimates for countries or regions that do not account for spatiotemporal heterogeneity due to climate and other biophysical dependencies. To allow for refined estimates of global agricultural water use, and of water saving and water productivity potentials constrained by biophysical processes and also non-trivial downstream effects, we incorporated a process-based representation of the three major irrigation systems (surface, sprinkler, and drip) into a bio- and agrosphere model, LPJmL. Based on this enhanced model we provide a gridded world map of irrigation efficiencies that are calculated in direct linkage to differences in system types, crop types, climatic and hydrologic conditions, and overall crop management. We find pronounced regional patterns in beneficial irrigation efficiency (a refined irrigation efficiency indicator accounting for crop-productive water consumption only), due to differences in these features, with the lowest values (< 30 %) in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and the highest values (> 60 %) in Europe and North America. We arrive at an estimate of global irrigation water withdrawal of 2469 km3 (2004–2009 average); irrigation water consumption is calculated to be 1257 km3, of which 608 km3 are non-beneficially consumed, i.e., lost through evaporation, interception, and conveyance. Replacing surface systems by sprinkler or drip systems could, on average across the world's river basins, reduce the non-beneficial consumption at river basin level by 54 and 76 %, respectively, while maintaining the current level of crop yields. Accordingly, crop water productivity would increase by 9 and 15 %, respectively, and by much more in specific regions such as in the Indus basin. This study significantly advances the global quantification of irrigation systems while providing a framework for assessing potential future transitions in these systems. In this paper, presented opportunities associated with irrigation improvements are significant and suggest that they should be considered an important means on the way to sustainable food security.

Short summary
We present a process-based simulation of global irrigation systems for the world’s major crop types. This study advances the global quantification of irrigation systems while providing a framework for assessing potential future transitions in these systems, a prerequisite for refined simulation of crop yields under climate change. We reveal for many river basins the potential for sizeable water savings and related increases in water productivity through irrigation improvements.