Irrigation modernization and the efficiency paradox: a meta-study through the lens of Networks of Action Situations

Patrick Hoffmann*, Sergio Villamayor-Tomas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
1 Downloads (Pure)


Infrastructure and technology investments that increase water-use efficiency (also called modernization investments) have become one of the most preferred solutions to cope with water scarcity in the context of climate change, increase productivity to satisfy growing demand, and save water to maintain ecosystems. In many cases, however, the higher efficiencies have led to more, instead of less, water consumption. This is generally known as the efficiency paradox or rebound effect. Understanding the processes behind the efficiency paradox remains a difficult task, given the variety of variables that either directly or indirectly factor into farmers’ water-use decisions and the strategic nature of many of those. This is even more the case when water is managed collectively by water-user associations, as in many irrigation systems worldwide. In order to better understand this complexity, our study applies the Networks of Action Situations approach to 37 studies of irrigation modernization investments in collectively managed irrigation systems. Through a systematic case review method, we identify 12 different action situations and 192 institutional, physical, and informational linkages that connect them. Although some studies report linkages between the modernization-investment and water-saving decision situations, many others relate them to situations typically associated with the collective management of irrigation systems (like the water application or infrastructure maintenance situations). A number of these situations, also including the water-saving situation, involve collective action problems that need to be integrated in current analyses. The solution towards more water saving may indeed benefit from a more active involvement of irrigation associations, given their proven capacity to promote collective action among farmers vis-à-vis other irrigation management situations.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalSustainability Science
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2022


  • Efficiency paradox
  • Irrigation
  • Meta-study
  • Modernization
  • Networks of action situations
  • Rebound effect
  • Social dilemmas


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