Under increasing water scarcity, food production for an increasing population is a global challenge. Maintaining crop production under limiting water supply is a common problem in agriculture, which is best addressed by the coordinated efforts of geneticists, physiologists and agronomists. This special issue is a selection of oral and poster presentations at the InterDrought IV conference, held in Perth (2-6 September 2013). These papers provide a broad, multidisciplinary view on the way to develop improved cultivars in the face of water deficit, providing the conference highlight: an integration of views from different disciplinary angles, generating constructive debate that was not buried in disciplinary silos. More specifically, the topics covered deal with the challenge of adaptation implicit in genotype-by-environment interaction, bring new perspectives on root systems and water productivity, and review the challenges and opportunities provided by crop management, genomic and transgenic approaches to cultivar improvement.