Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Hydroclimatic shifts driven by human water use for food and energy production


Hydrological change is a central part of global change1,2,3. Its drivers in the past need to be understood and quantified for accurate projection of disruptive future changes4. Here we analyse past hydro-climatic, agricultural and hydropower changes from twentieth century data for nine major Swedish drainage basins, and synthesize and compare these results with other regional5,6,7 and global2 assessments of hydrological change by irrigation and deforestation. Cross-regional comparison shows similar increases of evapotranspiration by non-irrigated agriculture and hydropower as for irrigated agriculture. In the Swedish basins, non-irrigated agriculture has also increased, whereas hydropower has decreased temporal runoff variability. A global indication of the regional results is a net total increase of evapotranspiration that is larger than a proposed associated planetary boundary8. This emphasizes the need for climate and Earth system models to account for different human uses of water as anthropogenic drivers of hydro-climatic change. The present study shows how these drivers and their effects can be distinguished and quantified for hydrological basins on different scales and in different world regions. This should encourage further exploration of greater basin variety for better understanding of anthropogenic hydro-climatic change.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Investigated hydrological basins and their temperature and precipitation characteristics.
Figure 2: Precipitation and runoff changes from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century (same periods as in Fig. 1b,c).
Figure 3: Potential (PET) and actual (ET) evapotranspiration relative to precipitation (P).
Figure 4: Typical variable co-development in Swedish basins (examples from Fig. 1a).
Figure 5: Contributions to evapotranspiration change from different drivers.


  1. Milly, P. C. D., Dunne, K. A. & Vecchia, A. V. Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438, 347–350 (2005).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Gordon, L. J., Steffen, W., Jönsson, B. F., Folke, C., Falkenmark, M. & Johannessen, Å. Human modification of global water vapor flows from the land surface. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 7612–7617 (2005).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bengtsson, L. The global atmospheric water cycle. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 02500 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Reid, W. V. et al. Earth system science for global sustainability: Grand challenges. Science 330, 916–917 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Shibuo, Y., Jarsjö, J. & Destouni, G. Hydrological responses to climate change and irrigation in the Aral Sea drainage basin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L21406 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Destouni, G., Asokan, S. M. & Jarsjö, J. Inland hydro-climatic interaction: Effects of human water use on regional climate. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L18402 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Asokan, S. M., Jarsjö, J. & Destouni, G. Vapor flux by evapotranspiration: Effects of changes in climate, land-use and water-use. J. Geophys. Res. 115, D24102 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Piao, S. L. et al. The impacts of climate change on water resources and agriculture in China. Nature 467, 43–51 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Koutsouris, A. J., Destouni, G., Jarsjö, J. & Lyon, S. W. Hydro-climatic trends and water resource management implications based on multi-scale data for the Lake Victoria region. Kenya. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 034005 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Wagener, T. et al. The future of hydrology: An evolving science for a changing world. Water Resour. Res. 46, W05301 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bring, A. & Destouni, G. Relevance of hydro-climatic change projection and monitoring for assessment of water cycle changes in the Arctic. Ambio 40, 361–369 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Degu, A. M. et al. The influence of large dams on surrounding climate and precipitation patterns. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L04405 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Jarsjö, J., Asokan, S. M., Prieto, C., Bring, A. & Destouni, G. Hydrological responses to climate change conditioned by historic alterations of land-use and water-use. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 1335–1347 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Lobell, D., Bala, G., Mirin, A., Phillips, T., Maxwell, R. & Rotman, D. Regional differences in the influence of irrigation on climate. J. Clim. 22, 2248–2255 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lee, E., Sacks, W. J., Chase, T. N. & Foley, J. A. Simulated impacts of irrigation on the atmospheric circulation over Asia. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D08114 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Harte, J. Toward a synthesis of the Newtonian and Darwinian worldviews. Phys. Today 55, 29–34 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Sivapalan, M., Thompson, S. E., Harman, C. J., Basu, N. B. & Kumar, P. Water cycle dynamics in a changing environment: Improving predictability through synthesis. Water Resour. Res. 47, W00J01 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Mitchell, T. & Jones, P. An improved method of constructing a database of monthly climate observations and associated high-resolution grids. Int. J. Climatol. 25, 693–712 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute VattenWeb (data download October 2011).

  21. Arora, V. K. The use of the aridity index to assess climate change effect on annual runoff. J. Hydrol. 265, 164–177 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Botter, G., Basso, S., Porporato, A., Rodriguez-Iturbe, I. & Rinaldo, A. Natural streamflow regime alterations: Damming of the Piave river basin (Italy). Water Resour. Res. 46, W06522 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Jordbruksverket Jordbruket i siffror: åren 1866–2007, Tabellbilaga, Jordbruksverket, Jönköping, Sweden (2011).

  24. Jansson, U., Wastenson, L., & Aspenberg, P. (eds.) Sveriges nationalatlas. Jordbruk och skogsbruk i Sverige sedan år 1900: en kartografisk beskrivning (Norstedt, 2011).

  25. Steduto, P., Hsiao, T. C. & Fereres, E. On the conservative behavior of biomass water productivity. Irrig. Sci. 25, 189–207 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Boucher, O., Myhre, G. & Myhre, A. Direct human influence of irrigation on atmospheric water vapor and climate. Clim. Dynam. 22, 597–603 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Bonfils, C. & Lobell, D. Empirical evidence for a recent slow-down in irrigation-induced cooling. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 13582–13587 (2007).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Kueppers, L. M., Snyder, M. A. & Sloan, L. C. Irrigation cooling effect: Regional climate forcing by land-use change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L03703 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations. FAOSTAT, (data download May 2012).

  30. Kuhlin, L. Info om svensk vattenkraft (data download November 2011).

Download references


The Swedish Research Council (VR, project number 2009-3221) and the strategic environmental research project EkoKlim at Stockholm University have supported this study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.D. had the main responsibility for the study idea, methods, analysis, and writing the paper. F.J. and C.P. made major contributions to the Swedish data compilations and their interpretation.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Georgia Destouni.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 966 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Destouni, G., Jaramillo, F. & Prieto, C. Hydroclimatic shifts driven by human water use for food and energy production. Nature Clim Change 3, 213–217 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing