Water shortage in China, particularly in the north and northwest of China, is very serious. The region accounts for half of the total area of China, but has less than 20% of total national available water resources. While the water shortage in this region is severe, irrigation water use efficiency is only about 40%, with a typical agricultural water use efficiency of about 0.46 kg m(-3). Excessive irrigation in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia has had a significant influence on downstream water users along the Yellow River. It is widely believed that an increase in the agricultural water use efficiency is the key to mitigating water shortage and reducing environmental problems. This paper reviews water-saving agricultural systems and approaches to improve agricultural water use efficiency in the and and semiarid areas of China. The paper will cover biological mechanisms of water-saving agriculture and water-saving irrigation technologies, including low pressure irrigation, furrow irrigation, plastic mulches, drip irrigation under plastic, rainfall harvesting and terracing, In addition, the paper addresses the compensatory effect of limited irrigation and fertilizer supplementation on water use efficiency and highlights the need to breed new varieties for high water use efficiency. Considerable potential for further improvement in agricultural water use efficiency in the region depends on effective conservation of moisture and efficient use of the limited water. (c) 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.