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Unsustainable water use challenges the capacity of water resources to ensure food security and continued growth of the economy. Adaptation policies targeting future water security can easily overlook its interaction with other sustainability metrics and unanticipated local responses to the larger-scale policy interventions. Using a global partial equilibrium grid-resolving model SIMPLE-G, and coupling it with the global Water Balance Model, we simulate the consequences of reducing unsustainable irrigation for food security, land use change, and terrestrial carbon. A variety of future (2050) scenarios are considered that interact irrigation productivity with two policy interventions— inter-basin water transfers and international commodity market integration. We find that pursuing sustainable irrigation may erode other development and environmental goals due to higher food prices and cropland expansion. This results in over 800 000 more undernourished people and 0.87 GtC additional emissions. Faster total factor productivity growth in irrigated sectors will encourage more aggressive irrigation water use in the basins where irrigation vulnerability is expected to be reduced by inter-basin water transfer. By allowing for a systematic comparison of these alternative adaptations to future irrigation vulnerability, the global gridded modeling approach offers unique insights into the multiscale nature of the water scarcity challenge.


Earth Systems Research Center

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Environmental Research Letters


Institute of Physics (IOP)

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This is an article published by Institute of Physics (IOP) in Environmental Research Letters in 2017, available online: