Sewage sludges are increasingly used in soil amendment programmes, although not without risk since they contain, among other potential hazards, high concentrations of total coliform bacteria. In this paper we have studied the effect of irrigation on the survival of total coliforms in three semiarid degraded soils with different agricultural practices. Fresh sewage sludge was added at 50 g kg(-1) soil, and incubated in both the presence and absence of irrigation. The absence of irrigation led to a sharp decrease in the number of total coliforms in all soils, with the bacteria disappearing in 40 days. Irrigation produced a substantial initial increase in the number of coliforms in the three soils, although after 80 days there was none growing in any of the soils. The results showed that there were significant differences in the survival of coliform bacteria due to the presence or absence of irrigation.