Managing water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems

Author: Juliane Haensch

To cope with increasingly variable water availability and more frequent occurrences of water scarcities, a diverse set of water resources management instruments have developed. Traditionally, countries support measures that enhance the water supply (e.g. irrigation infrastructure, water storage facilities). Increasingly, it is being recognized that water supply management measures need to be implemented alongside water demand management instruments to address potential rebound effects and to better cope with water allocation problems in increasingly water scarce regions globally.

During my PhD studies I explored farmers’ water trading behaviour in Australia, a country that frequently needs to deal with long periods of drought. Farmers in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin along the River Murray have adapted to low water availability and other environmental problems over many decades. Implementing water markets and water trading has been a successful strategy for farmers in Australia to better cope with seasonal or long-term water and crop price variabilities and to secure financial funds when selling (surplus) water, as well as providing environmental watering (“environmental flows”) and shifting water to higher value users.

Water trading is implemented in many other countries but different legal and socio-economic systems may hinder the implementation process. Every country needs to develop their own water management strategies that suit the local characteristics and needs. After moving back to Europe, I joined the SHui project on a Post-Doc position which has expanded my view and knowledge about the different agricultural systems and their needs as well as the different perspectives and strategies in water resources management that exist in the individual countries. Austria and Israel stood out as leading examples in the way soil (in Austria) and water (in Israel) is managed and relevant innovations were adopted. While Austria’s and Israel’s ways are very much connected to their geographical and biophysical characteristics and the way resources are managed, other countries are still able to learn from their experience.

Another important impact factor of the SHui project was the stakeholder engagement through focus groups and integrating the stakeholders’ views in current policy developments. Many discrepancies exist between the stakeholders wishes and current policy discussions. For a successful policy implementation and coherence, it will be important to find suitable methods of communication and integration of all relevant stakeholders in the policy planning stage as well as providing farmers with alternative measures if needed.

On 6 April 2022, Juliane Haensch presented the results of the stakeholder involvement (focus groups and farm surveys) in the SHui partner countries of WorkPackage 5 at the 96th Annual Conference of the Agricultural Economics Society at KU Leuven in Belgium.

In what was one of the first in-person conference in a long time, the presentation was followed by an insightful discussion with the 10 attendees. Generally, session participants were impressed by the size of the project and the many insights that could be gained from each of the country’s focus group. The audience was interested in the different farmers’ views from very different regions (e.g. farmers still working in Kibbutz style farming in Israel) and wanted to hear more insights, especially from the Chinese Focus Group.


In Journal of Hydrology
Authors: Jeřábek, J.; Zumr, D.; Laburda, T.; Krása, J.; Dostál, T.

Although wheel tracks cover only a small portion of the surface of agricultural fields, their effect on surface runoff and sediment transport is substantial. Wheel tracks change the microrelief of the soil surface, and influence how the surface is further altered by rainfall and runoff. This study presents a plot-scale microrelief analysis of a tilled surface with wheel tracks under simulated rainfall. Digital elevation models of the microrelief with 1 cm spatial resolution were obtained using the Structure from Motion method. The random roughness, the structural connectivity, and functional connectivity were calculated for before-rainfall and after-rainfall soil surface conditions. The experiments were carried out on inclined, freshly-tilled plots (8 m long, 2 m wide). The wheel tracks were created by four passages of machinery in the slope direction (SWT) and in the contour-line direction (CWT). The experiments were compared to reference plots without wheel tracks (NWT). The wheel tracks increase water and sediment connectivity if they are oriented in slope-wise direction. Microrelief analysis shows that SWT drains water from the surrounding soil. The soil surface adjacent to SWT can also become more connected with the wheel track, due to changes in microrelief introduced by rainfall and runoff. The calculated higher connectivity in the SWT plot corresponded to the measured increased sediment loads. This suggests faster overland flow and therefore shorter flow pathways on the soil surface microrelief. CWT leads to a decrease in the water and sediment connectivity compared to the NWT and SWT plots. Although the surface runoff can overflow the CWT, the network of flow paths results in decreased flow velocity and a slower sediment transport rate. However, the CWT effect is not permanent, and declines as the wheel tracks become silted with the deposited sediment. It is shown that detailed microrelief data provide relevant information for a study of the changes in flow routing in a tilled agricultural field with the presence of a wheel track. SWT accelerates the runoff and especially the sediment transport. During a rainfall event, the hydraulic connection between the wheel track and the surrounding soil increases dramatically. CWT reduces the surface runoff and also the sediment transport. In the long term, rainfall events and surface runoff alter the microrelief connectivity, causing the soil surface to be more hydraulically connected, irrespective of the wheel track orientation. This study demonstrates the effect of wheel tracks on water and sediment transport. The results draw attention to the importance of appropriate soil protection measures, as a bare unprotected surface microrelief exposed to rainfall leads to increased sediment connectivity.

Read the full paper here.


Authors: Olivares, Barlin O.; Vega, Andres; Rueda Calderon, Maria A.; Rey, Juan C.; Lobo, Deyanira; Gomez, Jose A.; Landa, Blanca B.


Over the last few decades, a growing incidence of Banana Wilt (BW) has been detected in the banana-producing areas of the central zone of Venezuela. This disease is thought to be caused by a fungal–bacterial complex, coupled with the influence of specific soil properties. However, until now, there was no consensus on the soil characteristics associated with a high incidence of BW. The objective of this study was to identify the soil properties potentially associated with BW incidence, using supervised methods. The soil samples associated with banana plant lots in Venezuela, showing low (n = 29) and high (n = 49) incidence of BW, were collected during two consecutive years (2016 and 2017). On those soils, sixteen soil variables, including the percentage of sand, silt and clay, pH, electrical conductivity, organic matter, available contents of K, Na, Mg, Ca, Mn, Fe, Zn, Cu, S and P, were determined. The Wilcoxon test identified the occurrence of significant differences in the soil variables between the two groups of BW incidence. In addition, Orthogonal Least Squares Discriminant Analysis (OPLS-DA) and the Random Forest (RF) algorithm was applied to find soil variables capable of distinguishing banana lots showing high or low BW incidence. The OPLS-DA model showed a proper fitting of the data (R2Y: 0.61, p value < 0.01), and exhibited good predictive power (Q2: 0.50, p value < 0.01). The analysis of the Receiver Operating Characteristics (ROC) curves by RF revealed that the combination of Zn, Fe, Ca, K, Mn and Clay was able to accurately differentiate 84.1% of the banana lots with a sensitivity of 89.80% and a specificity of 72.40%. So far, this is the first study that identifies these six soil variables as possible new indicators associated with BW incidence in soils of lacustrine origin in Venezuela.

Read the full paper here.


Authors: Wu, Xun; Shi, Jianchu; Zhang, Ting; Zuo, Qiang; Wang, Lichun; Xue, Xuzhang; Ben-Gal, Alon


The crop-water production function (CWPF) is widely used to quantitatively describe relationships between crop water deficit and yield, and evaluate the effects of different irrigation strategies in agro-hydrological models. In order to reasonably and reliably estimate crop yield and optimize irrigation scheduling, a novel CWPF was proposed by combining the plant water deficit index (PWDI), estimated based on root-weighted soil water availability, with a daily water sensitivity index derived from a sigmoidal cumulative function. Parameterized using data from a two-year winter wheat field lysimetric experiment conducted in the North China Plain and from a previously published two-year spring maize field drip irrigation experiment in Inner Mongolia, China, the CWPFs provided reasonable estimation of different crop yields with different water stress response characteristics under different field environments. Through coupling the genetic algorithm with the integrated simulations of soil water dynamics, PWDI and CWPF in the soil-wheat system, an optimization procedure was developed to determine PWDI threshold combinations to timely trigger irrigation according to pre-designed crop water deficit status. Crop yield and water use efficiency (WUE) of winter wheat were estimated and compared under different optimized constant and variable PWDI threshold combinations. In addition, the effects of climate change on the optimized variable PWDI threshold combinations were investigated using 38 years of historic meteorological data. The results showed that regulated deficit irrigation (RDI) with a variable threshold combination, in which the sensitivity characteristics to water deficit were considered for the crop at different growth stages, was superior to a constant threshold in enhancing crop yield and WUE. Irrespective of the number of irrigation events (1, 2, 3 or 4) during the growing season, the coefficients of variation (CV) of optimized PWDI thresholds for different combinations of irrigation sequence and events were not very large under the same kind of hydrological year (wet, normal or dry), with CV < 0.39 and a median of 0.21. When the mean (MN) of the optimized PWDI threshold combinations for different irrigation sequence and events was used to schedule RDI of winter wheat in terms of various hydrological years, up to 91% of the estimated relative yield was found to be higher than 90% of the corresponding maximum values. Therefore, the MN can be valuable in formulating rational irrigation management strategies of winter wheat to achieve relatively high yields with limited water under changing climatic conditions.

Read the full paper here.


Authors: Liebhard, Gunther C.; Klik, Andreas; Stumpp, Christine; Santos, Angela G. Morales; Eitzinger, Josef; Nolz, Reinhard


Knowledge of crop water requirements and the effects of management practices on the amounts of water used for crop transpiration and that lost through soil evaporation is essential for efficient agricultural water management. Therefore, this study investigated the temporal evolution of weekly evaporation and transpiration rates under varying soil water conditions in a conventionally managed soybean field by partitioning evapotranspiration based on a water and δ18O-stable isotope mass balance. The estimated rates were considered in combination with vertical soil water distribution, atmospheric demand (based on crop evapotranspiration), actual evapotranspiration, and the plant development stage. This allowed for the weekly rates to be compared to the current conditions resulting from dry periods, rain or irrigation events, and the extent of the canopy. The range of weekly transpiration/evapotranspiration, from blossom to maturation, was between 0.60 (±0.11) and 0.82 (±0.10). Within this range, transpiration/evapotranspiration shifted depending on the vertical soil water distribution and meteorological conditions. During dry soil surface periods, evaporation dropped to almost zero, whereas a wet surface layer substantially increased evaporation/evapotranspiration, even under a closed canopy. Under given conditions, the application of a few intense irrigations before the drying of the soil surface is recommended.

Read the full paper here.


Authors: Puertolas, Jaime; Dodd, Ian C.



Partial rootzone drying (PRD) typically alternates the dry and irrigated parts of the rootzone, but how plant physiology and soil evaporation respond to this alternation are poorly understood.


Dwarf tomatoes were grown in small split pots comprising two 250 cm3 compartments and fully irrigated (WW: 100% ETc) or subjected to three deficit irrigation treatments (75% ETc): homogeneous rootzone drying (HRD; irrigation evenly distributed); fixed PRD (PRD-F, irrigation applied to one fixed compartment); alternated PRD (PRD-A: as PRD-F but alternating the irrigated compartment every three days). Stem diameter and evapotranspiration were monitored during alternation cycles. The day after alternating the irrigated side of the root system, whole-plant gas exchange and leaf water potential were measured following step increments of vapour pressure deficit.


Alternation did not affect stem diameter contractions or evapotranspiration, which were lower in HRD than in the two PRD treatments. However, soil evaporation was higher in HRD and PRD-A after alternation than in PRD-F. Following alternation, higher soil evaporation was counteracted by decreased transpiration compared with fixed PRD, despite similar overall soil water content. VPD increments did not change this pattern.


Irrigation placement determined soil moisture distribution, which in turn affected soil evaporation and whole plant gas exchange. Optimising the frequency of PRD alternation to maximise water savings while ensuring productive water use needs to consider how soil moisture distribution affects both soil evaporation and plant water use.

Read the full paper here.


Authors: Busschaert, Louise; de Roos, Shannon; Thiery, Wim; Raes, Dirk; De Lannoy, Gabrielle J. M.


Global soil water availability is challenged by the effects of climate change and a growing population. On average, 70 % of freshwater extraction is attributed to agriculture, and the demand is increasing. In this study, the effects of climate change on the evolution of the irrigation water requirement to sustain current crop productivity are assessed by using the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) crop growth model AquaCrop version 6.1. The model is run at

resolution over the European mainland, assuming a general C3-type of crop, and forced by climate input data from the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project phase three (ISIMIP3).

First, the AquaCrop surface soil moisture (SSM) forced with two types of ISIMIP3 historical meteorological datasets is evaluated with satellite-based SSM estimates in two ways. When driven by ISIMIP3a reanalysis meteorology, daily simulated SSM values have an unbiased root mean square difference of 0.08 and 0.06 m3 m−3, with SSM retrievals from the Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS) and Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) missions, respectively, for the years 2015–2016 (2016 is the end year of the reanalysis data). When forced with ISIMIP3b meteorology from five global climate models (GCMs) for the years 2015–2020, the historical simulated SSM climatology closely agrees with the satellite-based SSM climatologies.

Second, the evaluated AquaCrop model is run to quantify the future irrigation requirement, for an ensemble of five GCMs and three different emission scenarios. The simulated net irrigation requirement (Inet) of the three summer months for a near and far future climate period (2031–2060 and 2071–2100) is compared to the baseline period of 1985–2014 to assess changes in the mean and interannual variability of the irrigation demand. Averaged over the continent and the model ensemble, the far future Inet is expected to increase by 22 mm per month (+30 %) under a high-emission scenario Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) 3–7.0. Central and southern Europe are the most impacted, with larger Inet increases. The interannual variability in Inet is likely to increase in northern and central Europe, whereas the variability is expected to decrease in southern regions. Under a high mitigation scenario (SSP1–2.6), the increase in Inet will stabilize at around 13 mm per month towards the end of the century, and interannual variability will still increase but to a smaller extent. The results emphasize a large uncertainty in the Inet projected by various GCMs.

Read the full paper here.

SHui researchers were strongly represented at a session of the International Symposium on Managing Land and Water for Climate-Smart Agriculture 2022 (Vienna, 25-29 July 2022) that was dedicated to the crop growth model AquaCrop. This model has been an essential research tool within SHui, as our researchers have

The symposium was aimed at a diverse group of participants including:

  • United Nations system and CGIAR organizations including the World Food Programme
  • Policy makers from governmental, non-governmental and international organizations
  • Donor agencies and potential partners at international, regional or national  levels

Over 150 attended the conference in-person, with another 600 registrations online, indicating its importance to this audience.

After Pascuale Steduto, formerly with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), introduced AquaCrop, Maher Salman also of the FAO provided a retrospective analysis of its academic impact, aided by SHui’s Margarita Garcia-Vila. AquaCrop has been used to analyse the responses of 46 crops, facilitated by extensive knowledge exchange symposia in different parts of the world (67 workshops in 40 countries attracting > 1500 participants) and dedicated training videos to assist those learning how to implement the model. As in SHui, it has helped to assess the impacts of climate change, inform irrigation management and determine the water productivity of diffefrent crops and environments. Future developments of AquaCrop were also foreshadowed.

Elias Fereres of SHui then provided an overview of efforts to simulate the impacts of climate change (CC) using AquaCrop. Whether future climate would affect positively or negatively agricultural productivity depends on the crop responses to elevated CO2 which still are difficult to predict in CC assessments. While CC is predicted to decrease crop yields in some of the poorest regions of the world, it was heartening that the model suggested farmers could adapt to mitigate the impacts of climate change by increasing soil fertility. Moreover, some studies suggest that potential irrigation requirements may diminish for some crops under a future climate.

However, that doesn’t appear to be the case for Europe. Gabrielle de Lannoy of SHui showed the potential of satellite-based data acquisition to update estimates of crop biomass accumulation in-season, to improve AquaCrop’s predictive ability. Furthermore, she introduced recent work running AqauCrop at 0.5o latitude x 0.5o longitude resolution within Europe using climate input data. Compared to a 1985-2014 baseline, simulated net irrigation requirement is predicted to increase by 30%, with greater interannual variability in northern and central Europe. Recent climatic events seem to support these projections.

A number of speakers, including SHui’s Margarita Garcia-Vila, then provided case studies of where AquaCrop was being used around the world to aid decision making at national, catchment and plot scales, including Belgium, Ghana and Lebanon. Finally Dirk Raes of KU Leuven summarised new developments in AquaCrop.

Watch the recordings of the meeting here.

Programme available here.


Authors: Liebhard, Gunther; Klik, Andreas; Neugschwandtner, Reinhard W.; Nolz, Reinhard


Tillage practices are known to affect soil water retention, plant available water and, consequently, crop production. Impacts can be determined by assessing soil hydraulic properties and crop characteristics. In this study, three tillage practices were investigated with respect to vertical soil water distribution and development of soybean. A specific focus was set on determining evaporation and transpiration as fractions of evapotranspiration to obtain additional information on water availability and crop water use. The agricultural practices included conventional tillage, reduced tillage (no plow), and no-tillage. The study site was a long-term field experiment under rainfed conditions. The investigations covered a vegetation period of soybean. The measurements comprised weather and soil water monitoring using sensors and manual monitoring of crop development. Evapotranspiration and its components were determined using scintillometer measurements and an isotope-based water balance technique. In the researched vegetation period with limited water availability, the conservative tillage practices showed better water storage, water use, and crop yields compared to the conventional practice. The weekly evaporation and transpiration rates progressed according to the respective canopy development. Thus, delayed plant development of the no-till practice led to extended green cover and productive water use during the late season, where a large part of the precipitation has fallen. The tillage-induced differences of soil hydraulic properties had a substantial impact on soil water distribution, but a comparatively small impact on the soil surface wetness and thus directly on the evaporation rate. The tillage-induced impacts on soil cover by plant residues, however, showed the substantial reduction effect of plant residue cover on evaporation losses. Hence, assessment of evaporation and transpiration rates contributes to the understanding of differences in water productivity and promotes the efficient use of the available water resources.

Read the full paper here.