Global irrigation contribution to wheat and maize yield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Xuhui Wang
  • Christoph Müller
  • Joshua Elliot
  • Nathaniel D. Mueller
  • Philippe Ciais
  • Jonas Jägermeyr
  • James Gerber
  • Patrice Dumas
  • Chenzhi Wang
  • Hui Yang
  • Laurent Li
  • Delphine Deryng
  • Christian Folberth
  • Wenfeng Liu
  • David Makowski
  • Stefan Olin
  • Ashwan Reddy
  • Erwin Schmid
  • Sujong Jeong
  • Feng Zhou
  • Shilong Piao

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Peking University
  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • University of Illinois
  • Center for Climate Systems Research
  • Colorado State University
  • CEA CNRS UVSQ Orme des Merisiers
  • University of Minnesota Twin Cities
  • Centre International de Recherche sur l’Environnement et le Développement
  • Laboratoire Kastler Brossel, ENS, UPMC-Paris 6
  • Climate Analytics
  • University of Munich
  • China Agricultural University
  • Université Paris-Saclay
  • Lunds Universitet
  • University of Maryland
  • BOKU Vienna
  • Seoul National University
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences


Irrigation is the largest sector of human water use and an important option for increasing crop production and reducing drought impacts. However, the potential for irrigation to contribute to global crop yields remains uncertain. Here, we quantify this contribution for wheat and maize at global scale by developing a Bayesian framework integrating empirical estimates and gridded global crop models on new maps of the relative difference between attainable rainfed and irrigated yield (ΔY). At global scale, ΔY is 34 ± 9% for wheat and 22 ± 13% for maize, with large spatial differences driven more by patterns of precipitation than that of evaporative demand. Comparing irrigation demands with renewable water supply, we find 30–47% of contemporary rainfed agriculture of wheat and maize cannot achieve yield gap closure utilizing current river discharge, unless more water diversion projects are set in place, putting into question the potential of irrigation to mitigate climate change impacts.

Bibliographic note

Funding Information: This study was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFA0604702 & 2019YFA0607302) and National Natural Science Foundation of China (42041007 & 41988101). Publisher Copyright: © 2021, The Author(s).


Original languageEnglish
Article number1235
Number of pages8
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Early online date23 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Feb 2021