The role of irrigation in changing wheat yields and heat sensitivity in India

Irrigation has been pivotal in wheat’s rise as a major crop in India and is likely to be increasingly important as an adaptation response to climate change. Here we use historical data across 40 years to quantify the contribution of irrigation to wheat yield increases and the extent to which irrigation reduces sensitivity to heat. We estimate that national yields in the 2000s are 13% higher than they would have been without irrigation trends since 1970. Moreover, irrigated wheat exhibits roughly one-quarter of the heat sensitivity estimated for fully rainfed conditions. However, yield gains from irrigation expansion have slowed in recent years and negative impacts of warming have continued to accrue despite lower heat sensitivity from the widespread expansion of irrigation. We conclude that as constraints on expanding irrigation become more binding, furthering yield gains in the face of additional warming is likely to present an increasingly difficult challenge.