Climate change and increasing water use associated with socio-economic growth have exacerbated the water crisis in many parts of the world. Many regional studies rely on Earth System Models that, however, do not fully exploit streamflow observations. Here we offer an observation-based approach to predicting streamflow change on the basis of the elasticity of streamflow to their climate drivers observed at 9,505 catchments across the globe. We show that near-future (2021–2050) global streamflow may be lower than predicted by Earth System Models, particularly in Africa, Australia and North America. The lower streamflow predicted here is due to smaller contributions from precipitation and stronger sensitivity of streamflow to changes in evapotranspiration, which is related to increased radiation energy and vapour transfer, and enhanced vegetation greening. Our estimate points towards the possibility that a future water crisis could be more severe than anticipated.
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The data generated for the main figures are publicly available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5577395.
The code producing the main results is available from the corresponding authors upon request.
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Y.Z. acknowledges funding from the National Key R&D Program of China (grant no. 2022YFC3002804), CAS Pioneer Talents Program, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 41971032) and the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (2019QZKK0208). G.B. acknowledges funding from the Austrian Science Funds (W1219-N22, I 3174). X.Z. was supported by the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program (2019QZKK0206) and the Youth Innovation Promotion Association CAS (2022053). L.R.L. acknowledges support from US Department of Energy Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research as part of the Regional and Global Model Analysis, Earth and Environmental System Modeling Program. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is operated for the Department of Energy by Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. The streamflow data used in this study were obtained from Global Runoff Data Centre (GRDC), Geospatial Attributes of Gages for Evaluating Streamflow (GAGES)-II database, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Chinese Academy of Science. We also thank G. Weedon for producing and distributing the WATCH forcing Data ERA-Interim datasets.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Zhang, Y., Zheng, H., Zhang, X. et al. Future global streamflow declines are probably more severe than previously estimated. Nat Water 1, 261–271 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44221-023-00030-7