Improvements in crop water productivity increase water sustainability and food security - A global analysis

Kate A. Brauman, Stefan Siebert, Jonathan A. Foley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

200 Scopus citations


Irrigation consumes more water than any other human activity, and thus the challenges of water sustainability and food security are closely linked. To evaluate how water resources are used for food production, we examined global patterns of water productivity - food produced (kcal) per unit of water (l) consumed. We document considerable variability in crop water productivity globally, not only across different climatic zones but also within climatic zones. The least water productive systems are disproportionate freshwater consumers. On precipitation-limited croplands, we found that ∼40% of water consumption goes to production of just 20% of food calories. Because in many cases crop water productivity is well below optimal levels, in many cases farmers have substantial opportunities to improve water productivity. To demonstrate the potential impact of management interventions, we calculated that raising crop water productivity in precipitation-limited regions to the 20th percentile of productivity would increase annual production on rainfed cropland by enough to provide food for an estimated 110 million people, and water consumption on irrigated cropland would be reduced enough to meet the annual domestic water demands of nearly 1.4 billion people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number024030
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2013


  • food security
  • global hydrology
  • irrigation
  • sustainability
  • water productivity


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