Water use efficiency

Improving water use efficiency

The term water use efficiency (WUE) is used to describe the relationship between the growth of the crops and the amount of water consumed by the crops, i.e. the ratio between the quantity of biomass/yield produced and the amount of water either depleted from the soil through the (evapo)transpiration process or diverted and supplied by irrigation. Water use efficiency is a broad concept that can be defined in many ways, as a bio-physical, technical, economic and/or nutritional term, depending on the time and space scales of the processes it refers to.

The WUE term depends on many inter-related parameters including crop characteristics, climatic and soil conditions, fertilizer and pesticide applications, irrigation practices, land management, water quality and availability, etc. This proves the complexity of research on WUE that is pursued through a four-step approach including:

  • the experimental work and creation of databases regarding the agronomic aspects of water use in agriculture;
  • harmonization of approaches and standardization of procedures on measurement techniques, methodologies and innovative tools related to water use efficiency;
  • the development of a matrix of options, opportunities and priority actions for improving water use efficiency; and
  • building of consensus on the framework of interventions (measures) to disseminate the best-performing WUE practices accounting for different socio-economic conditions, environmental scenarios and scales.


Starting: 8.01.1990
Scheduled ending: 25.06.2019
Real ending: 25.06.2019

The overall objective of Water Use Efficiency research line is to increase yield per hectare per unit of water used, both under rainfed and irrigated conditions.

The specific objectives refer to major research topics including:

  • crop water requirements and irrigation scheduling;
  • soil water balance and crop growth modelling;
  • resources use efficiency of Mediterranean crops;
  • crop response to abiotic stresses (water, nitrogen, heat);
  • climate change impacts and adaptation measures. 

This research represents a very important step for the strategic research lines of the L&W Division. In fact, many outputs from this research at field scale are taken as inputs for the research at catchment, basin and regional scales.


In the Mediterranean areas, the overall objective is to optimize water and land use in agriculture. WUE research line is giving more insight into the on-field management aspects of crop growth emphasizing the importance of applying the best management practices that will permit to use less water for irrigation, decrease evaporation losses, optimize fertilizer supply, pest control, energy consumption, soil conditions, etc.. In view of that, increasing yield per hectare per unit of water used is one of the main goals of modern agriculture especially in arid and semi-arid regions with limited water supply. In those areas, the farmers are frequently constrained to apply deficit irrigation strategies and the ability to manage water supply in accordance with the sensitivity of crop growth stages to water stress is of utmost importance. Furthermore, in those situations, the economic aspects of WUE would gain additional importance due to farmer’s interest to improve economic return from the investments in irrigation water supply.

The improvement of water use efficiency in Euro-Mediterranean agriculture would produce notable environmental benefits because of improvement in quality and saving in quantity of water resources available in reservoirs, groundwater aquifers and water courses. Other benefits could consist in stabilizing agricultural production and income of farmers that would contribute to reduce the urbanization process and abandonment of agricultural land. Furthermore, water saving in agriculture could attenuate the problems of water allocation for different uses.


Inasmuch as large amounts of data on WUE terms are available, there is some difficulty in comparing them. In fact, it has clearly emerged that for each given crop both biomass and yield WUE vary greatly. In such perspective, more efforts should be made by the scientific community to make data comparable, using standardized procedures and units of measurements. Certainly, a clearer conceptualization of WUE terms is necessary at national and regional scale.

Nowadays it is important to ensure the continuity with the international scientific cooperation activities from previous framework programmes and other initiatives carried out in the Mediterranean region at local, national and regional scales. There is substantial room for promoting new initiatives to be built upon the progress and achievements of the past EC-funded projects, fostering synergies between good agronomic practices, manipulation of genes through breeding, crop growth modelling, improved performance of irrigation water supply systems and socio-economic and environmental analysis. A confirmation is the recently approved FP7-EC-funded project WASSERMed to investigate water availability and security in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean under the on-going climate variability and change.

  • Strengths

The main research lines of “Land and Water Division” are based on the “problem solving” approach that combines advanced scientific and technical knowledge with sustainable solutions to achieve concrete impact in the Mediterranean region. The activities that have been carried out for more than 15 years within the framework of the MAIB Cooperative research networks (WUE-Net, CIS-Net, UWRM-Net), have created the conditions for the continuation of the above research in the Mediterranean region, as requested by all the Mediterranean partners. In the research strategy of the L&W Division, this is considered only as a step towards the whole integrated water and land system. This approach implies a strong interaction among engineering, agronomic and socio-economic aspects, which creates synergies and produces real innovations.

  • Weaknesses

The weakness is mainly related to the complexity in coordinating many partners with different background from the Mediterranean countries where data are scarce and/or difficult to access.

Reference person/s: Todorovic Mladen /
Collaborators: Scardigno Alessandra /
Thesis: Faba bean and potato agronomic responses to different water regimes in a Mediterranean environment
Détermination directe de l’évapotranspiration des cultures irriguées à partir de deux modèles de calcul de la résistance du couvert : validation sur des cultures présentant des tailles contrastées cultivées en region méditerranéenne
Analyse des différentes stratégies d’irrigation destinées à optimiser l’efficience de l’eau chez le maïs cultivé dans des conditions pédoclimatiques contrastées dans la région des Pouilles
Assessment of AquaCrop and CropSyst models in the simulation of wheat and barley growth under different water and nitrogen regimes
Comparison between wheat and barley crops grown under Mediterranean environments and different water and nitrogen supply
Optimization of the cropping pattern in Jordan Valley under different climatic conditions and water availability: environmental and socio-economic aspects
Evaluation of crop coefficients for tomato and melon crops grown in a Mediterranean climate
Simulation directe de l'évapotranspiration maximale à partir des données climatiques standards : validation sur quatre cultures de tailles contrastées cultivées en région Méditerranéenne
Growth, development and resources use of field grown barley under different water and N regimes
Growth, development and resources use of field grown durum wheat under different water and N regimes
Water use efficiency of wheat grown under different water and nitrogen conditions
Simulation de la réponse du maïs cultivé en région méditerranéenne dans des conditions hydriques contrastées aux changements climatiques
Water use efficiency of barley grown under different water and nitrogen conditions
Deficit irrigation of sunflower under Mediterranean environmental conditions: on-field experiment and modelling application
Response of selected wheat varieties to different levels of supplementary sprinkler irrigation
Pistachio response under different irrigation and fertigation practices in South East Anatolia Region (GAP) of Turkey
Institutions involved: Biotechnical University, Podgorica
Istituto di Tecnologie Biomediche, CNR - sede di Bari
Faculty of Agriculture, University of Athens
Faculty of Agriculture, University of Belgrade
FAO - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Institut National Agronomique de Tunisie (INAT)
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)
Technical University of Lisbon
University of Cukurova
University of Davis, California
University of Jordan (UJ)
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