Satellite-Based Monitoring of Irrigation Water Use: Assessing Measurement Errors and Their Implications for Agricultural Water Management Policy

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88 Scopus citations


Reliable accounting of agricultural water use is critical for sustainable water management. However, the majority of agricultural water use is not monitored, with limited metering of irrigation despite increasing pressure on both groundwater and surface water resources in many agricultural regions worldwide. Satellite remote sensing has been proposed as a low-cost and scalable solution to fill widespread gaps in monitoring of irrigation water use in both developed and developing countries, bypassing the technical, socioeconomic, and political challenges that to date have constrained in situ metering. In this paper, we show through a systematic meta-analysis that the relative accuracy of different satellite-based irrigation water use monitoring approaches remains poorly understood, with evidence of large uncertainties when water use estimates are validated against in situ irrigation data at both field and regional scales. Subsequently, we demonstrate that water use measurement errors result in large economic welfare losses for farmers and may negatively impact ability of policies to limit acute and nonlinear externalities of irrigation abstraction on both the environment and other water users. Our findings highlight that water resource planners must consider the trade-offs between accuracy and costs associated with different water use accounting approaches. Remote sensing has an important role to play in supporting improved agricultural water accounting—both independently and in combination with in situ monitoring. However, greater transparency and evidence is needed about underlying uncertainties in satellite-based models, along with how these measurement errors affect the performance of associated policies to manage different short- and long-term externalities of irrigation water use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020WR028378
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2020


  • groundwater
  • irrigation
  • monitoring
  • policy
  • remote sensing
  • surface water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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