A scale-based framework to understand the promises, pitfalls and paradoxes of irrigation efficiency to meet major water challenges

Bruce Lankford, Alvar Closas, James Dalton, Elena López Gunn, Tim Hess, Jerry W. Knox, Saskia van der Kooij, Jonathan Lautze, David Molden, Stuart Orr, Jamie Pittock, Brian Richter, Philip J. Riddell, Christopher A. Scott, Jean philippe Venot, Jeroen Vos, Margreet Zwarteveen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


An effective placement of irrigation efficiency in water management will contribute towards meeting the pre-eminent global water challenges of our time such as addressing water scarcity, boosting crop water productivity and reconciling competing water needs between sectors. However, although irrigation efficiency may appear to be a simple measure of performance and imply dramatic positive benefits, it is not straightforward to understand, measure or apply. For example, hydrological understanding that irrigation losses recycle back to surface and groundwater in river basins attempts to account for scale, but this generalisation cannot be readily translated from one location to another or be considered neutral for farmers sharing local irrigation networks. Because irrigation efficiency (IE) motives, measures, effects and technologies play out at different scales for different people, organisations and purposes, and losses differ from place to place and over time, IE is a contested term, highly changeable and subjective. This makes generalisations for science, management and policy difficult. Accordingly, we propose new definitions for IE and irrigation hydrology and introduce a framework, termed an ‘irrigation efficiency matrix’, comprising five spatial scales and ten dimensions to understand and critique the promises, pitfalls and paradoxes of IE and to unlock its utility for addressing contemporary water challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102182
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
StatePublished - Nov 2020


  • Irrigation
  • Irrigation efficiency
  • River basins
  • SDGs
  • Scale
  • Water allocation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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