Assessing water footprint at river basin level: a case study for the Heihe River Basin in northwest China
Abstract. Increasing water scarcity places considerable importance on the quantification of water footprint (WF) at different levels. Despite progress made previously, there are still very few WF studies focusing on specific river basins, especially for those in arid and semi-arid regions. The aim of this study is to quantify WF within the Heihe River Basin (HRB), a basin located in the arid and semi-arid northwest of China. The findings show that the WF was 1768 million m3 yr−1 in the HRB over 2004–2006. Agricultural production was the largest water consumer, accounting for 96% of the WF (92% for crop production and 4% for livestock production). The remaining 4% was for the industrial and domestic sectors. The "blue" (surface- and groundwater) component of WF was 811 million m3 yr−1. This indicates a blue water proportion of 46%, which is much higher than the world average and China's average, which is mainly due to the aridness of the HRB and a high dependence on irrigation for crop production. However, even in such a river basin, blue WF was still smaller than "green" (soil water) WF, indicating the importance of green water. We find that blue WF exceeded blue water availability during eight months per year and also on an annual basis. This indicates that WF of human activities was achieved at a cost of violating environmental flows of natural freshwater ecosystems, and such a WF pattern is not sustainable. Considering the large WF of crop production, optimizing the crop planting pattern is often a key to achieving more sustainable water use in arid and semi-arid regions.