Abstract Food security and sustainable development require efficient use of water resources, especially in irrigation. Economic pricing can be an effective tool to achieve more efficient water use, provided it is supported by other policies in implementation. Applying various water pricing and cost recovery arrangements is suggested for efficient allocation. Any adverse impact on farmers’ incomes must be addressed and more reliable service must accompany higher prices. Experience from several countries suggests a variety of implementation issues. Essential complements to water pricing are water distribution rules and technological choices at critical nodes in the delivery system that allow farmers flexibility in conserving water in response to higher prices. Among supporting institutions, water users associations seem a higher priority than water markets.