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The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency

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The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency

Higher efficiency rarely reduces water consumption


5 min read
4 take-aways
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What's inside?

Efficient crop irrigation must be combined with oversight and technology to avert a global water crisis.

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  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Concrete Examples


The impending global water crisis pits policymakers against agricultural interests in the fight for scarce resources. In this detailed article, a team of researchers explores the paradox of how “high efficiency” irrigation systems rarely save water, and can even be wasteful. They outline a number of methods such as “water accounting” and usage caps, which could mitigate misuse of fresh water for crop irrigation worldwide. The article will engage readers concerned about water conservation, and how farm irrigation can be made more efficient and sustainable.


Irrigation accounts for 70% of fresh water usage and water managers often endeavor to conserve this valuable resource through irrigation efficiency (IE).

Long-term scientific research proves that even the most advanced IE systems rarely save water unless combined with additional conservation methodologies. A paradox results from the fact that most water “saved” through IE is simply re-purposed through planting crops that require more water.

In order to preserve scarce water resources, government supervisors...

About the Authors

R. Quentin Grafton is a professor at Australian National University and Co-Chair of the ANU Water Initiative. He is Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance; Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy; and Convener of the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security.

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