Perspective | Published:

Water shortages worsened by reservoir effects


The expansion of reservoirs to cope with droughts and water shortages is hotly debated in many places around the world. We argue that there are two counterintuitive dynamics that should be considered in this debate: supply–demand cycles and reservoir effects. Supply–demand cycles describe instances where increasing water supply enables higher water demand, which can quickly offset the initial benefits of reservoirs. Reservoir effects refer to cases where over-reliance on reservoirs increases vulnerability, and therefore increases the potential damage caused by droughts. Here we illustrate these counterintuitive dynamics with global and local examples, and discuss policy and research implications.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Dunning, N. P., Beach, T. P. & Luzzadder-Beach, S. Collapse and resilience in lowland Maya civilization. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 3652–3657 (2012).

  2. 2.

    Jaramillo, F. & Destouni, G. Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint. Science 350, 1248–1251 (2015).

  3. 3.

    Vörösmarty, C. J., Pahl-Wostl, C., Bunn, S. & Lawford, R. Global water, the Anthropocene and the transformation of science. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 539–550 (2013).

  4. 4.

    AghaKouchak, A., Feldman, D., Hoerling, M., Huxman, T. & Lund, J. Water and climate: recognize anthropogenic drought. Nature 524, 409–4011 (2015).

  5. 5.

    Van Loon, A. F. et al. Drought in the Anthropocene. Nat. Geosci. 9, 89–9 (2016).

  6. 6.

    Wanders, N., Wada, Y. & Van Lanen, H. A. J. Global hydrological droughts in the 21st century under a changing hydrological regime. Earth Syst. Dyn. 6, 1–15 (2015).

  7. 7.

    Di Baldassarre, G., Martinez, F., Kalantari, Z. & Viglione, A. Drought and flood in the Anthropocene: feedback mechanisms in reservoir operation. Earth Syst. Dyn. 8, 225–233 (2017).

  8. 8.

    Veldkamp, T. I. E. et al. Water scarcity hotspots travel downstream due to human interventions in the 20th and 21st century. Nat. Commun. 8, 15697 (2017).

  9. 9.

    Gaupp, F., Hall, J. & Dadson, S. The role of storage capacity in coping with intra- and inter-annual water variability in large river basins. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 125001 (2015).

  10. 10.

    Ehsani, N., Vörösmarty, C. J., Fekete, B. M. & Stakhiv, E. Z. Reservoirs operations under climate change: storage capacity options to mitigate risk. J. Hydrol. 555, 435–446 (2017).

  11. 11.

    Pokhrel, Y. N., Hanasaki, N., Wada, Y. & Kim, H. Recent progresses in incorporating human land — water management into global land surface models toward their integration into Earth system models. WIREs Water 3, 548–574 (2016).

  12. 12.

    Lehner, B. et al. High-resolution mapping of the world’s reservoirs and dams for sustainable river-flow management. Front. Ecol. Environ. 9, 494–502 (2011).

  13. 13.

    Chao, B. F., Wu, Y. H. & Li, Y. S. Impact of artificial reservoir water impoundment on global sea level. Science 320, 212–214 (2008).

  14. 14.

    Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. Anthropogenic sediment retention: Major global impact from registered river impoundments. Glob. Planet. Change 39, 169–190 (2003).

  15. 15.

    Wada, Y., Gleeson, T. & Esnault, L. Wedge approach to water stress. Nat. Geosci. 7, 615–617 (2014).

  16. 16.

    Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).

  17. 17.

    Brown, C. & Lall, U. Water and economic development: the role of variability and a framework for resilience. Nat. Resour. Forum 30, 306–317 (2006).

  18. 18.

    Briscoe, J. Water security: why it matters and what to do about it. Innov. Technol. Gov. Global. 4, 3–28 (2009).

  19. 19.

    Gray, D. & Sadoff, C. W. Water for Growth and Development (World Bank, Washington DC, 2006).

  20. 20.

    Briscoe, J. Practice and teaching of American water management in a changing world. J. Water Resour. Plann. Manage. 136, 409–411 (2010).

  21. 21.

    Gleick, P. H. Global freshwater resources: soft-path solutions for the 21st century. Science 302, 1524–1528 (2003).

  22. 22.

    Ahlers, R., Brandimarte, L., Kleemans, I. & Hashmat Sadat, S. Ambitious development on fragile foundations: criticalities of current large dam construction in Afghanistan. Geoforum 54, 49–58 (2014).

  23. 23.

    Gernaat, D. E. H. J., Bogaart, P. W., van Vuuren, D. P., Biemans, H. & Niessink, R. High-resolution assessment of global technical and economic hydropower potential. Nat. Energy 2, 821–828 (2017).

  24. 24.

    Ansar, A., Flyvbjerg, B., Budzier, A. & Lunn, D. Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development. Energy Policy 69, 43–56 (2014).

  25. 25.

    Latrubesse, E. M. et al. Damming the rivers of the Amazon Basin. Nature 546, 363–369 (2017).

  26. 26.

    Wanders, N. & Wada, Y. Y. Human and climate impacts on the 21st century hydrological drought. J. Hydrol. 526, 208–220 (2015).

  27. 27.

    He, X., Wada, Y., Wanders, N. & Sheffield, J. Intensification of hydrological drought in California by human water management. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 1777–1785 (2017).

  28. 28.

    AghaKouchak, A. et al. Aral Sea syndrome desiccates Lake Urmia: call for action. J. Great Lakes Res. 41, 307–311 (2015).

  29. 29.

    Alborzi, A. et al. Climate-informed environmental inflows to revive a drying lake facing meteorological and anthropogenic droughts. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 084010 (2018).

  30. 30.

    Ashraf, B. et al. Quantifying anthropogenic stress on groundwater resources. Sci. Rep. 7, 12910 (2017).

  31. 31.

    Molle, F., Wester, P. & Hirsch, P. River basin closure: processes, implications and responses. Agric. Water Manage. 97, 569–577 (2010).

  32. 32.

    Van Oel, P. R., Krol, M. S. & Hoekstra, A. Y. Downstreamness: a concept to analyze basin closure. J. Water Resour. Plann. Manage. 137, 404–411 (2011).

  33. 33.

    Kallis, G. Coevolution in water resource development: the vicious cycle of water supply and demand in Athens, Greece. Ecol. Econ. 69, 796–809 (2010).

  34. 34.

    Scarrow, R. M. Sustainable migration to the urban west. Int. J. Sociol. 44, 34–53 (2014).

  35. 35.

    Alcott, B. “Jevons’ paradox”. Ecol. Econ. 54, 9–21 (2005).

  36. 36.

    Berbel, J., Gutiérrez-Martín, C., Rodríguez-Díaz, J. A., Camacho, E. & Montesinos, P. Literature review on rebound effect of water saving measures and analysis of a Spanish case study. Water Resour. Manage. 29, 663–678 (2014).

  37. 37.

    Dumont, A., Mayor, B. & López-Gunn, E. Is the rebound effect or Jevons paradox a useful concept for better management of water resources? Insights from the irrigation modernisation process in Spain. Aquat. Procedia 1, 64–76 (2013).

  38. 38.

    Taylor, R. Ground water and climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 322–329 (2013).

  39. 39.

    Gleeson, T., Wada, Y., Bierkens, M. F. & van Beek, L. P. Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint. Nature 488, 197–200 (2012).

  40. 40.

    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).

  41. 41.

    Karavitis, C. A. Drought and urban water supplies: the case of metropolitan Athens. Water Policy 1, 505–524 (1998).

  42. 42.

    Harrison, C. Water Use and Natural Limits in the Las Vegas Valley: A History of The Southern Nevada Water Authority (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2009).

  43. 43.

    Morris, R., Devitt, D. A., Crites, Z. A. M., Borden, G. & Allen, L. N. Urbanization and water conservation in Las Vegas Valley, Nevada. J. Water Resour. Plann. Manage. 123, 189–195 (1997).

  44. 44.

    SNWA Water Resources Management Plan (Southern Nevada Water Authority, Las Vegas, 2009).

  45. 45.

    Douglass, W. & Raento, P. The tradition of invention: conceiving Las Vegas. Ann. Tour. Res. 31, 7–23 (2004).

  46. 46.

    van Dijk, A. I. J. M. et al. The Millennium Drought in southeast Australia (2001–2009): natural and human causes and implications for water resources, ecosystems, economy, and society. Water Resour. Res. 49, 1040–1057 (2013).

  47. 47.

    Hemati, A. et al. Deconstructing demand: the anthropogenic and climatic drivers of urban water consumption. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 12557–12566 (2016).

  48. 48.

    Kates, R. W., Colten, C. E., Laska, S. & Leatherman, S. P. Reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: a research perspective. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 14653–14660 (2006).

  49. 49.

    Kuil, L., Carr, G., Viglione, A., Prskawetz, A. & Blöschl, G. Conceptualizing socio-hydrological drought processes: the case of the Maya collapse. Water Resour. Res. 52, 6222–6242 (2016).

  50. 50.

    Burby, R. J. Hurricane Katrina and the paradoxes of government disaster policy: bringing about wise governmental decisions for hazardous areas. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 604, 171–191 (2006).

  51. 51.

    Di Baldassarre, G. et al. Perspectives on socio-hydrology: capturing feedbacks between physical and social processes. Water Resour. Res. 51, 4770–4781 (2015).

  52. 52.

    Ashton, P. J., Hardwick, D. & Breen, C. M. In Exploring Sustainability Science: A Southern African Perspective (eds M. Burns & A. Weaver) 279–310 (African Sun Media, Stellenbosch, 2008).

  53. 53.

    Anderies, J. M. Managing variance: key policy challenges for the Anthropocene. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 14402–14403 (2015).

  54. 54.

    Gleick, P. H. & Palaniappan, M. Peak water limits to freshwater withdrawal and use. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 11155–11162 (2010).

  55. 55.

    Burton, I., Kates, R. W. & White, G. F. The Human Ecology of Extreme Geophysical Events 78 (FMHI Publications, 1968).

  56. 56.

    Ostrom, E. A General framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009).

  57. 57.

    Sivapalan, M., Savenije, H. H. & Blöschl, G. Socio-hydrology: a new science of people and water. Hydrol. Process. 26, 1270–1276 (2012).

  58. 58.

    Birkmann, J. & von Teichman, K. Integrating disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation: key challenges — scales, knowledge, and norms. Sustain. Sci. 5, 171–184 (2010).

  59. 59.

    Srinivasan, V., Lambin, E. F., Gorelick, S. M., Thompson, B. H. & Rozelle, S. The nature and causes of the global water crisis: syndromes from a meta-analysis of coupled human–water studies. Water Resour. Res. 48, W10516 (2012).

  60. 60.

    Adger, N., Quinn, T., Lorenzoni, I., Murphy, C. & Sweeney, J. Changing social contracts in climate-change adaptation. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 112–117 (2013).

  61. 61.

    Wada, Y., van Beek, L. P. H., Wanders, N. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Human water consumption intensifies hydrological drought worldwide. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 034036 (2013).

  62. 62.

    Lehner, B., Verdin, K. & Jarvis, A. New global hydrography derived from spaceborne elevation data. EOS 89, 93–94 (2008).

  63. 63.

    Verdon-Kidd, D. C. & Kiem, A. S. Nature and causes of protracted droughts in southeast Australia: comparison between the Federation, WWII, and Big Dry droughts. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L22707 (2009).

Download references


G.D.B. was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) within the project ‘HydroSocialExtremes: Uncovering the Mutual Shaping of Hydrological Extremes and Society’, ERC Consolidator Grant No. 771678. N.W. acknowledges the funding from NWO 016.Veni.181.049. S.R. and A.F.V.L. were supported by the NWO project ‘Adding the human dimension to drought’ (2004/08338/ALW). This work was developed within the activities of the working group on Drought in the Anthropocene of the Panta Rhei research initiative of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS).

Author information

G.D.B. conceived the study and wrote the manuscript. N.W. developed the global analysis of reservoir storage analysis and water demand. A.A., L.K., S.R., T.I.E.V., M.G., P.R.v.O., K.B. and A.F.V.L. contributed data or insights, discussed the argument and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Giuliano Di Baldassarre.

Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.

About this article

Fig. 1: Water supply to cope with water shortage.
Fig. 2: Water supply can worsen water shortage.
Fig. 3: Global reservoir storage capacity versus water demand.
Fig. 4: Local examples of the supply–demand cycles over multiple decades.