Enhancing water use efficiency (WUE) is the key approach to maintain sustainable water resource supply. Due to the complexity of the water cycle, accurate estimation of WUE at the regional scale is a challenging task. Here we presented a framework of relative water use efficiency (RWUE). According to the linkage between RWUE and land use types, assessment of WUE at a regional scale could be performed operationally. This approach was evaluated in a study area, Tuhai-Majia Basin, North China. Based on remote sensing-derived evapotranspiration (ET) and land use data, regional WUE were assessed accordingly. The mean RWUE of agriculture, ecosystem and total basin in 2005 was 60.12, 30.07 and 62.5%, respectively. Spatial analysis showed that the agricultural WUE played the dominant role in water-saving of the study area; water management of unused land (RWUE of 2005 was 5.46%), especially wetland protection and other unused land development, will contribute significantly to ecological RWUE improvement. Temporal analysis indicated that there was considerable inter-annual variability in RWUE time series profiles. The agricultural interlude period might be important for enhancing WUE in the Tuhai-Majia Basin. In general, the results indicated that the RWUE-based method was an efficient and simple method to evaluate WUE at regional scale.

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