Massive crop expansion threatens agriculture and water sustainability in northwestern China

Jiameng Lai, Yanan Li, Jianli Chen, Guo Yue Niu, Peirong Lin, Qi Li, Lixin Wang, Jimei Han, Zhenqi Luo, Ying Sun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Northwestern China (NWC) is among the major global hotspots undergoing massive terrestrial water storage (TWS) depletion. Yet driver(s) underlying such region-wide depletion remain controversial, i.e. warming-induced glaciermelting versus anthropogenic activities. Reconciling this controversy is the core initial step to guide policymaking to combat the dual challenges in agriculture production and water scarcity in the vastly dry NWC toward sustainable development. Utilizing diverse observations, we found persistent cropland expansion by >1.2 × 104 km2 since 2003, leading to growth of 59.9% in irrigated area and 19.5% in agricultural water use, despite a steady enhancement in irrigation efficiency. Correspondingly, a substantially faster evapotranspiration (ET) increase occurred in crop expansion areas, whereas precipitation exhibited no long-term trend. Counterfactual analyses suggest that the region-wide TWS depletion is unlikely to have occurred without an increase in crop expansion-driven ET even in the presence of glaciermelting. These findings imply that sustainable water management is critically needed to ensure agriculture and water security in NWC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number034003
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022


  • crop expansion
  • drylands
  • freshwater depletion
  • irrigation
  • sustainable agriculture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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