Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint

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Science  04 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6265, pp. 1248-1251
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad1010

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Local decisions with global consequences

Some estimates suggest that humanity has already exceeded our sustainable global water footprint: the balance between fresh water use and supply. It seems that the situation may be more unsustainable than we realize. Jaramillo and Destouni analyzed hydroclimatic data for 100 large basins dating back to 1901. Better accounting of local water use revealed larger than anticipated effects on the global water cycle. For example, local regulation of surface water flow and expanded regional irrigation activities have increased global evapotranspiration rates.

Science, this issue p. 1248


Flow regulation and irrigation alter local freshwater conditions, but their global effects are highly uncertain. We investigated these global effects from 1901 to 2008, using hydroclimatic observations in 100 large hydrological basins. Globally, we find consistent and dominant effects of increasing relative evapotranspiration from both activities, and decreasing temporal runoff variability from flow regulation. The evapotranspiration effect increases the long-term average human consumption of fresh water by 3563 ± 979 km3/year from 1901–1954 to 1955–2008. This increase raises a recent estimate of the current global water footprint of humanity by around 18%, to 10,688 ± 979 km3/year. The results highlight the global impact of local water-use activities and call for their relevant account in Earth system modeling.

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