Articles | Volume 21, issue 7
Research article
13 Jul 2017
Research article |  | 13 Jul 2017

Marginal cost curves for water footprint reduction in irrigated agriculture: guiding a cost-effective reduction of crop water consumption to a permit or benchmark level

Abebe D. Chukalla, Maarten S. Krol, and Arjen Y. Hoekstra

Abstract. Reducing the water footprint (WF) of the process of growing irrigated crops is an indispensable element in water management, particularly in water-scarce areas. To achieve this, information on marginal cost curves (MCCs) that rank management packages according to their cost-effectiveness to reduce the WF need to support the decision making. MCCs enable the estimation of the cost associated with a certain WF reduction target, e.g. towards a given WF permit (expressed in m3  ha−1 per season) or to a certain WF benchmark (expressed in m3  t−1 of crop). This paper aims to develop MCCs for WF reduction for a range of selected cases. AquaCrop, a soil-water-balance and crop-growth model, is used to estimate the effect of different management packages on evapotranspiration and crop yield and thus the WF of crop production. A management package is defined as a specific combination of management practices: irrigation technique (furrow, sprinkler, drip or subsurface drip); irrigation strategy (full or deficit irrigation); and mulching practice (no, organic or synthetic mulching). The annual average cost for each management package is estimated as the annualized capital cost plus the annual costs of maintenance and operations (i.e. costs of water, energy and labour). Different cases are considered, including three crops (maize, tomato and potato); four types of environment (humid in UK, sub-humid in Italy, semi-arid in Spain and arid in Israel); three hydrologic years (wet, normal and dry years) and three soil types (loam, silty clay loam and sandy loam). For each crop, alternative WF reduction pathways were developed, after which the most cost-effective pathway was selected to develop the MCC for WF reduction. When aiming at WF reduction one can best improve the irrigation strategy first, next the mulching practice and finally the irrigation technique. Moving from a full to deficit irrigation strategy is found to be a no-regret measure: it reduces the WF by reducing water consumption at negligible yield reduction while reducing the cost for irrigation water and the associated costs for energy and labour. Next, moving from no to organic mulching has a high cost-effectiveness, reducing the WF significantly at low cost. Finally, changing from sprinkler or furrow to drip or subsurface drip irrigation reduces the WF, but at a significant cost.

Short summary
In the current study, we have developed a method to obtain marginal cost curves (MCCs) for WF reduction in crop production. The method is innovative by employing a model that combines soil water balance accounting and a crop growth model and assessing costs and WF reduction for all combinations of irrigation techniques, irrigation strategies and mulching practices. While this approach has been used in the field of constructing MCCs for carbon footprint reduction, this has never been done before.