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Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint


Groundwater is a life-sustaining resource that supplies water to billions of people, plays a central part in irrigated agriculture and influences the health of many ecosystems1,2. Most assessments of global water resources have focused on surface water3,4,5,6, but unsustainable depletion of groundwater has recently been documented on both regional7,8 and global scales9,10,11. It remains unclear how the rate of global groundwater depletion compares to the rate of natural renewal and the supply needed to support ecosystems. Here we define the groundwater footprint (the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services) and show that humans are overexploiting groundwater in many large aquifers that are critical to agriculture, especially in Asia and North America. We estimate that the size of the global groundwater footprint is currently about 3.5 times the actual area of aquifers and that about 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater resources and/or groundwater-dependent ecosystems are under threat. That said, 80 per cent of aquifers have a groundwater footprint that is less than their area, meaning that the net global value is driven by a few heavily overexploited aquifers. The groundwater footprint is the first tool suitable for consistently evaluating the use, renewal and ecosystem requirements of groundwater at an aquifer scale. It can be combined with the water footprint and virtual water calculations12,13,14, and be used to assess the potential for increasing agricultural yields with renewable groundwaterref15. The method could be modified to evaluate other resources with renewal rates that are slow and spatially heterogeneous, such as fisheries, forestry or soil.

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Figure 1: Groundwater footprints of aquifers that are important to agriculture are significantly larger than their geographic areas.
Figure 2: Groundwater stress may be affecting 1.7 billion people and could limit the potential to increase agricultural production.


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S. Siebert, M. Jellinek, M. Lathuilliere, A. Henderson and W. Rees read or discussed earlier versions of the manuscript, which markedly improved it. T.G. was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research junior fellowship. Y.W. was supported by Utrecht University Focus Areas Theme ‘Earth and sustainability’.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



T.G. developed the groundwater footprint method, created the figures and wrote the paper with input from all authors. Y.W. and L.P.H.v.B. completed the analysis of groundwater consumption and hydrologic data. L.P.H.v.B., T.G. and M.F.P.B developed the environmental flow methodology. All authors discussed results and edited the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tom Gleeson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures 1-4, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and Supplementary References. (PDF 1079 kb)

Supplementary Data

This file contains a table with the groundwater footprint of all aquifers. The x-y coordinates are the centroids of each aquifer polygon. (XLS 139 kb)

Supplementary Data

This zipped file contains 3 files containing data on groundwater recharge, groundwater abstraction and environmental flow. The file format is arcinfo ascii grid, spatial resolution is half a degree (i.e. 50km by 50km at the equator), temporal resolution is a year, coverage is global and units are in million cubic metres per year. (ZIP 688 kb)

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Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. et al. Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature 488, 197–200 (2012).

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