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Water competition between cities and agriculture driven by climate change and urban growth


Urban water demand will increase by 80% by 2050, while climate change will alter the timing and distribution of water. Here we quantify the magnitude of these twin challenges to urban water security, combining a dataset of urban water sources of 482 of the world’s largest cities with estimates of future water demand, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment scenarios, and predictions of future water availability, using the WaterGAP3 modelling framework. We project an urban surface-water deficit of 1,3866,764 million m³. More than 27% of cities studied, containing 233 million people, will have water demands that exceed surface-water availability. An additional 19% of cities, which are dependent on surface-water transfers, have a high potential for conflict between the urban and agricultural sectors, since both sectors cannot obtain their estimated future water demands. In 80% of these high-conflict watersheds, improvements in agricultural water-use efficiency could free up enough water for urban use. Investments in improving agricultural water use could thus serve as an important global change adaptation strategy.

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Fig. 1: Schematic illustration of the methods adopted in this study
Fig. 2: Global urban water security (n = 482).
Fig. 3: Urban surface-water deficit by subregion for the baseline and 2050s.
Fig. 4: Cities and subbasins where an improvement in irrigation water-use efficiency could help to overcome urban surface-water deficits in the future.
Fig. 5: Top 20 cities under urban surface-water deficit affected by climate change and socio-economic development (including urbanization).


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Author information




M.F. and R.I.M. designed the study, M.F. drafted the manuscript and performed the analyses. R.I.M. provided all information on basin transfers, C.S. implemented basin transfers into the model and prepared global gridded data of water availability and sectoral water uses. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Martina Flörke.

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Flörke, M., Schneider, C. & McDonald, R.I. Water competition between cities and agriculture driven by climate change and urban growth. Nat Sustain 1, 51–58 (2018).

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