Flexibility and intensity of global water use

An Author Correction to this article was published on 19 June 2019

This article has been updated


Water stress is often evaluated by scarcity: the share of available water supply being consumed by humans. However, some consumptive uses of water are more or less flexible than others, depending on the costs or effects associated with their curtailment. Here, we estimate the share of global water consumption over the period 1980–2016 from the relatively inflexible demands of irrigating perennial crops, cooling thermal power plants, storing water in reservoirs and supplying basic water for humans and livestock. We then construct a water stress index that integrates the share of runoff being consumed (scarcity), the share of consumption in these inflexible categories (flexibility) and the historical variability of runoff weighted by storage capacity (variability), and use our index to evaluate the trends in water stress of global major river basins on six continents. We find that the 10% most stressed basins encompass ~19%, 19% and 35% of global population, thermal electricity generation and irrigated calorie production, respectively, and some of these basins also experience the largest increases in our identified stress indexes over the study period. Water consumption intensities (water used per unit of goods or service produced) vary by orders of magnitude across and within continents, with highly stressed basins in some cases characterized by high water consumption intensities. Our results thus point to targeted water mitigation opportunities (for example, relocating crops and switching cooling technologies) for highly stressed basins.

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Fig. 1: Global and sectoral water consumption.
Fig. 2: Global maps of three factors contributing to the SFV water stress index.
Fig. 3: Recent 5-year (2012–2016) average water stress indexes (SFV) for global major river basins in this study.
Fig. 4: Water consumption in comparison to water availability for selected river basins in each continent as shown in Fig. 3.
Fig. 5: Average water consumption intensities for thermal power cooling, perennial crops irrigation and reservoir evaporation at the basin level for major continents in 2016.

Data availability

Data used to perform this work can be found in the Supplementary Information. Any further data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

Change history

  • 19 June 2019

    In the version of this Analysis originally published, in the section ‘Trends in global water demand’, the percentage increase in agricultural area equipped for irrigation was incorrect: the text ‘rose by 48% from 270 to 400×106 ha’ should have read ‘rose by 50% from 220 to 330×106 ha’; this has now been corrected.


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Y.Q., C.H. and S.J.D. were supported by the US National Science Foundation (INFEWS grant EAR 1639318). We acknowledge helpful discussions with C. McIntosh.

Author information




S.J.D., N.D.M., R.B.J., J.B.Z. and Y.Q. designed the study. Y.Q. performed the analyses, with additional support from S.S., A.A. and D.T. on datasets and S.S., C.H. and D.T. on analytical approaches. Y.Q., S.J.D., N.D.M., R.B.J. and J.B.Z. led the writing with input from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Yue Qin.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References 1–79, Supplementary Tables 1–7 and Supplementary Figs. 1–7.

Supplementary Dataset 1

Spreadsheet of data that allows readers to use their own preferred weighting schemes to generate the resulting new water stress indexes for global basins.

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Qin, Y., Mueller, N.D., Siebert, S. et al. Flexibility and intensity of global water use. Nat Sustain 2, 515–523 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0294-2

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