Towards groundwater neutral cropping systems in the Alluvial Fans of the North China Plain

P.A.J. van Oort*, G. Wang, J. Vos, H. Meinke, B.G. Li, J.K. Huang, W. van der Werf

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Groundwater levels in the North China Plain (NCP), the bread basket of China, have dropped more than one meter per year over the last 40 years, putting at risk the long term productivity of this region. Groundwater decline is most severe in the Alluvial Fans where our study site is located. Avoiding a foreseeable systems collapse requires region-wide changes in crop systems management, underpinned by sound environmental policies. Here, we explore the potential of crop system adaptation to remedy the excessive water use and quantify the likely yield penalties associated with more sustainable water use practices. Using simulations with the APSIM cropping systems model we explore production opportunities in an area within the NCP with intensive cropping and no access to irrigation from rivers. We estimate the attainable production levels for wheat and maize if agriculture were made groundwater neutral, through changes in crop sequence, irrigation practices and water conservation technologies (e.g. mulching with plastic film). Total grain production would drop by 44% compared to current practice if agriculture were made groundwater neutral. Water conservation by plastic film could limit this reduction to 21-33% but possible environmental impacts of plastic film need attention. This analysis facilitates a much needed debate on alternative agronomic practices and incentives through a quantitative comparison of adaptation options. Our biophysical analysis needs to be complemented with socio-economic considerations and discussions with all stakeholders. Similar analyses in other parts of the NCP are possible but require more accurate modelling of landscape hydrology and (towards the coast) risk of salt water intrusion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-140
JournalAgricultural Water Management
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


  • Crop rotation
  • Groundwater
  • Maize
  • North China Plain
  • Plastic film mulch
  • Sustainable
  • Wheat

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