Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 347–360 | Cite as

The human dimensions of water saving irrigation: lessons learned from Chinese smallholder farmers

  • Morey Burnham
  • Zhao MaEmail author
  • Delan Zhu


Water saving irrigation (WSI) is promoted as a strategy to mitigate future water stresses by the Chinese government and irrigation scientists. However, the dissemination of WSI in China has been slow and little is understood with respect to why farmers adopt WSI or how WSI interacts with the social and institutional contexts in which it is embedded. By analyzing qualitative data from 37 semi-structured and 56 unstructured interviews across 13 villages in northwest China, this paper examines smallholder farmers’ knowledge and perceptions of WSI, and how WSI interacts with farmer livelihood decision-making and extant systems of land and water management. The results show that smallholders’ willingness to adopt and continuously use WSI was dampened by (1) a lack of communal capital and measures for conflict resolution, (2) a disconnect between the temporal demands of practicing WSI and the ways farmers prioritize different livelihood strategies, (3) misconceptions about WSI systems and how they work, (4) market risks, and (5) landownership structure and economies of scale. These results suggest that programs for promoting WSI must be holistic in nature and address smallholders’ day-to-day problems. Understanding why WSI did not succeed in some places will help formulate policy interventions that avoid reproducing conflicts, risks, and technological malfunctions responsible for previous failure.


Agricultural livelihoods Drip irrigation Risk perception Technology adoption Water conservation China 



This research was partially funded by Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University (NWAFU) through the 111 project of Chinese Ministry of Education (No. B12007) and Utah Agricultural Experiment Station. The authors are grateful to Drs. Pute Wu, Youke Wang, Xining Zhao, Xiping Liu, Yubao Wang from NWAFU and Roger Kjelgren from Utah State University for their continuous support for this research. The authors also thank Chunyan Qi and Mengying Sun for their assistance during fieldwork.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Studies, College of Environmental Science and ForestryState University of New YorkSyracuseUSA
  2. 2.Department of Forestry and Natural ResourcesPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  3. 3.Agricultural Water and Soil Engineering LaboratoryNorthwest Agriculture and Forestry UniversityYanglingChina

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