Quantifying and mapping China’s crop yield gains from sustainable and unsustainable irrigation water use


About 40 - 50% of China’s cropland is irrigated. We used the DNDC model to predict crop yield for ~17 crop types involved in ~28 cropping systems across China, under zero and full irrigation for each county for 1981-2000. We estimate that yield increases due to irrigation range from 0 - 100%, depending on water deficits arising from local climate and weather conditions and crop types. We used gridded water balance simulations with the UNH WBM driven by MERRA weather reconstructions for 1981-2000 to compute demand for irrigation water, and the capacity of various sources to supply that demand in each grid cell. We estimate that approximately 15% - 20% of the water needed to fulfill the country’s irrigation water demand must come from unsustainable sources such as fossil groundwater. Yields using only the sustainable irrigation water capacity are calculated by weighing the DNDC zero and full irrigation yields based on the water availability results of WBM for each grid cell. Restricting irrigation water use to only sustainable sources results in a national crop yield decrease of ~20%. Irrigation water demand, unsustainable water use, and crop yield gains due to irrigation all have significant spatial variation across China. These spatial variations show that irrigation water use - sustainable and unsustainable - results in significant crop yield gains in some regions, and little to no crop yield gains in other regions. Unsustainable water use for irrigation is concentrated in the highly populated and agriculturally valuable North China Plain region, particularly Hebei, Shandong and Henan Provinces. While current plans for the South-North Water Transfer could mitigate some of the water deficit we do not expect the projected transfers to adequately supply this region with sufficient water resources to supply both the people and crops sustainably.


Earth Sciences, Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union (AGU)


American Geophysical Union Publications

Document Type

Conference Proceeding