Global irrigation contribution to wheat and maize yield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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.


  • 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
  • Ashwan Reddy
  • Erwin Schmid
  • Sujong Jeong
  • Feng Zhou
  • Shilong Piao
External organisations
  • Peking University
  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • University of Chicago
  • Colorado State University
  • Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University
  • University of Minnesota
  • Centre International de Recherche sur l'Environnement et le Développement (CIRED)
  • Pierre and Marie Curie University
  • Climate Analytics
  • Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich
  • China Agricultural University
  • University of Paris-Saclay
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
  • Seoul National University
  • CAS Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth Science
  • Columbia University
  • Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Agricultural Science
Original languageEnglish
Article number1235
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication categoryResearch