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.

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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.


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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).

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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.

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Correspondence to Giuliano Di Baldassarre.

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Di Baldassarre, G., Wanders, N., AghaKouchak, A. et al. Water shortages worsened by reservoir effects. Nat Sustain 1, 617–622 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0159-0

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