Substitution between water and other agricultural inputs: Implications for water conservation in a River Basin context

Ximing Cai, Claudia Ringler, Jiing Yun You

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Substitution of irrigation water with other agricultural inputs could be an important means to conserve water in the face of growing pressures on water resources from both nonagricultural water demands and environmental water requirements. This paper discusses the potential of such substitution through an empirical analysis based on a multiple-input crop production function at the field and farm scales complemented with a numerical modeling exercise at the basin scale. Results from the crop production function analysis show that under both crop yield and net profit maximization, water is a substitute to other crop inputs for high-value crops, and is a complement to water for low-valued crops. At the basin scale, an integrated economic-hydrologic river basin model is used to analyze the role of other factors in crop input substitution, including the spatial connections among water sources and demands, hydro-agronomic conditions, and institutional settings for water allocation. Results show that in the case study area, the Maipo River basin in Chile, where water is very scarce, moving from the current, input-constrained, situation to full optimization of water resources leads to an increase in all crop inputs, including water. In that case, 301 million m3 of additional water use results in additional net profits of USD 11 million. However, if the water fee is raised by a factor of eight while overall basin irrigation profits are maintained at the original, baseline level, a reduction of water withdrawals by 326 million m3 is traded off with costs of USD 43.2 million for other inputs. Irrigation districts with a high share of low-value crops have a low potential for substituting water with other crop inputs. Therefore, investments for water substitution should also be kept low in these areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)38-50
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Economics
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 15 2008


  • Input substitution
  • Irrigation
  • Modeling
  • Water management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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