Articles | Volume 15, issue 12
Research article
20 Dec 2011
Research article |  | 20 Dec 2011

Modelling global water stress of the recent past: on the relative importance of trends in water demand and climate variability

Y. Wada, L. P. H. van Beek, and M. F. P. Bierkens

Abstract. During the past decades, human water use has more than doubled, yet available freshwater resources are finite. As a result, water scarcity has been prevalent in various regions of the world. Here, we present the first global assessment of past development of water stress considering not only climate variability but also growing water demand, desalinated water use and non-renewable groundwater abstraction over the period 1960–2001 at a spatial resolution of 0.5°. Agricultural water demand is estimated based on past extents of irrigated areas and livestock densities. We approximate past economic development based on GDP, energy and household consumption and electricity production, which are subsequently used together with population numbers to estimate industrial and domestic water demand. Climate variability is expressed by simulated blue water availability defined by freshwater in rivers, lakes, wetlands and reservoirs by means of the global hydrological model PCR-GLOBWB. We thus define blue water stress by comparing blue water availability with corresponding net total blue water demand by means of the commonly used, Water Scarcity Index. The results show a drastic increase in the global population living under water-stressed conditions (i.e. moderate to high water stress) due to growing water demand, primarily for irrigation, which has more than doubled from 1708/818 to 3708/1832 km3 yr−1 (gross/net) over the period 1960–2000. We estimate that 800 million people or 27% of the global population were living under water-stressed conditions for 1960. This number is eventually increased to 2.6 billion or 43% for 2000. Our results indicate that increased water demand is a decisive factor for heightened water stress in various regions such as India and North China, enhancing the intensity of water stress up to 200%, while climate variability is often a main determinant of extreme events. However, our results also suggest that in several emerging and developing economies (e.g. India, Turkey, Romania and Cuba) some of past extreme events were anthropogenically driven due to increased water demand rather than being climate-induced.