Letter | Published:

Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint

Nature volume 488, pages 197200 (09 August 2012) | Download Citation



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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Global groundwater? Issues and solutions. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 34, 153–178 (2009)

  2. 2.

    et al. Groundwater use for irrigation — a global inventory. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 1863–1880 (2010)

  3. 3.

    , & Human appropriation of renewable fresh water. Science 271, 785–788 (1996)

  4. 4.

    , , & Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000)

  5. 5.

    et al. Global estimates of water withdrawals and availability under current and future business-as-usual conditions. Hydrol. Sci. J. 48, 339–348 (2002)

  6. 6.

    & Global hydrological cycles and world water resources. Science 313, 1068–1072 (2006)

  7. 7.

    , & Satellite-based estimates of groundwater depletion in India. Nature 460, 999–1002 (2009)

  8. 8.

    et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California's Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 38, L03403, (2011)

  9. 9.

    et al. Global depletion of groundwater resources. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 37, L20402, (2010)

  10. 10.

    , & Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: a global assessment. Wat. Resour. Res.. 48, W00L06, (2012)

  11. 11.

    Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 38, L17401, (2011)

  12. 12.

    , , & The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the Global Standard (Earthscan, 2011)

  13. 13.

    Human appropriation of natural capital: a comparison of ecological footprint and water footprint analysis. Ecol. Econ. 68, 1963–1974 (2009)

  14. 14.

    Virtual water: a strategic resource, global solutions to regional deficits. Ground Water 36, 545–546 (1998)

  15. 15.

    et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011)

  16. 16.

    & Our Ecological Footprint (New Society Publishers, 1996)

  17. 17.

    & The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (published online, 13 February 2012)

  18. 18.

    , , , & Global monthly water scarcity: blue water footprints versus blue water availability. PLoS ONE 7, e32688 (2012)

  19. 19.

    , & Reply to Pfister and Hellweg: Water footprint accounting, impact assessment, and life-cycle assessment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, E114 (2009)

  20. 20.

    Groundwater Resources of the World 1 : 25 000 000 (2008)

  21. 21.

    Vulnerability to the impact of climate change on renewable groundwater resources: a global-scale assessment. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035006 (2009)

  22. 22.

    , & Global monthly water stress: 1. Water balance and water availability. Wat. Resour. Res. 47, W07517 (2011)

  23. 23.

    Low flow hydrology: a review. J. Hydrol. 240, 147–186 (2001)

  24. 24.

    , & A pilot global assessment of environmental water requirements and scarcity. Wat. Int. 29, 307–317 (2004)

  25. 25.

    et al. The ecological limits of hydrologic alteration (ELOHA): a new framework for developing regional environmental flow standards. Freshwat. Biol. 55, 147–170 (2010)

  26. 26.

    et al. Global monthly water stress: 2. Water demand and severity of water stress. Wat. Resour. Res. 47, W07518 (2011)

  27. 27.

    Review: groundwater management practices, challenges, and innovations in the High Plains aquifer, USA — lessons and recommended actions. Hydrogeol. J. 18, 559–575 (2010)

  28. 28.

    et al. Quaternary Aquifer of the North China Plain—assessing and achieving groundwater resource sustainability. Hydrogeol. J. 12, 81–93 (2004)

  29. 29.

    Gridded Population of the World Version 3 (GPWv3): Population Density Grids (Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), Columbia University, 2011); available at (accessed, 17 February 2011)

  30. 30.

    et al. Mapping permeability over the surface of the Earth. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 38, L02401, (2011)

Download references


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


  1. Department of Civil Engineering, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3A 0C3, Canada

    • Tom Gleeson
  2. Department of Physical Geography, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, PO Box 80115, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Yoshihide Wada
    • , Marc F. P. Bierkens
    •  & Ludovicus P. H. van Beek
  3. Deltares, PO Box 85467, 3508 AL Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Marc F. P. Bierkens


  1. Search for Tom Gleeson in:

  2. Search for Yoshihide Wada in:

  3. Search for Marc F. P. Bierkens in:

  4. Search for Ludovicus P. H. van Beek in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tom Gleeson.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures 1-4, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and Supplementary References.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    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.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    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.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.