Hotspots for social and ecological impacts from freshwater stress and storage loss –

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The global co-occurrence of freshwater stress and freshwater storage trends

We mapped freshwater stress and trends in freshwater storage at the basin scale and analyzed the co-occurrence of these phenomena (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Global co-occurrence of freshwater stress and storage trends.
figure 1

a Freshwater stress, derived from freshwater withdrawal and streamflow datasets (see “Methods” section). b Freshwater storage trend per basin. c Combinations of freshwater stress and storage trend per basin, which together derive basin freshwater status (shown in Fig. 2b). Values overlaying the legend indicate the number of basins satisfying each set of conditions. For categorical plotting purposes only, ±3 mm year−1 is used as the threshold denoting a clear directional storage trend, based on the error level of the underlying observations25. dg The exposure of social-ecological activity to freshwater stress and storage trends. Each plot represents storage trends as the x-axis coordinate, and log-transformed freshwater stress as the y-axis coordinate with the size of each circle based on the basin’s value respective to each plotting dimension.

Freshwater stress represents the state of demand-driven water scarcity15 and is defined as the ratio of freshwater withdrawal to streamflow (Fig. 1a). Trends in freshwater storage, conversely, represent the evolution of total storage, defined as the vertical sum of groundwater, soil moisture, surface water, and snow water equivalent storages (Fig. 1b). Freshwater stress and storage are linked, as freshwater storage becomes a required source of water during periods when demands exceed supply. As climate change intensifies hydrological extremes globally, the strategic importance of the world’s largest store of liquid freshwater, groundwater, will only continue to increase24. Though studies have focussed on global assessments of freshwater stress13,14,15 and trends in freshwater storage9, no study to date has mapped these two variables against one another. Doing so provides important context to differentiate basins of equal freshwater stress, as drying trends are likely to exacerbate challenges derived from freshwater stress, while wetting trends may yield offsetting effects. However, as freshwater stress calculations do not differentiate between withdrawals sourced from streamflow or storage, the two variables are not necessarily independent.

We found that 201 (42%) of the 478 currently stressed basins (withdrawal/streamflow > 0.10) are simultaneously losing freshwater storage (Fig. 1c). These basins are located in south and southwestern USA, northeastern Brazil, central Argentina, Algeria, and concentrate throughout the Middle East, the Caucasus, northern India, and northern China. Predominantly, these regions are agriculturally significant and heavily irrigated9, with the exception of a few basins in South America whose trends are likely the product of natural variability9. Conversely, 98 (21%) of the currently stressed basins are gaining freshwater storage. The storage trends in these basins have largely been attributed to natural variability with the exception of central India, whose trends are partially attributed to groundwater recovery following groundwater policy change9. The remaining 179 stressed basins have freshwater storage trends that are smaller than can be definitively interpreted from the satellites monitoring these trends25. This skew towards negative storage trends (i.e., drying) in the world’s water-stressed basins dissipates and even reverses in the non-stressed basins, where drying and wetting trends are found in 23% and 32% of the 726 non-stressed basins, respectively. While previous work has shown that the world’s dry regions are becoming drier while the wet regions are becoming wetter26, this work reveals that the stressed regions of the world are becoming drier while the non-stressed regions of the world have no clear overall trend in freshwater storage.

The encompassed human population, food crop production, gross domestic product (GDP), biodiversity, and wetlands enumerate the potential social-ecological impacts from the current state of global freshwater stress and storage trends. Around 2.2 billion people, 27% of global food crop production, and 28% of global GDP live, grow, and situate in freshwater stressed basins that are drying (Fig. 1d–f). These totals represent an upper limit as not all social and ecological activity within these basins will be affected by freshwater stress and storage loss, which will depend on local levels of adaptive capacity and ecological sensitivity22 (our focus in the subsequent sections). Conversely, 1.2 billion people, 24% of global food crop production, and 19% of global GDP are found in stressed basins that are wetting. We find less taxonomic biodiversity in the freshwater stressed and drying basins, and greater biodiversity in unstressed and wetting basins. Roughly the same number of wetlands of international importance are found in stressed and drying basins as in stressed and wetting basins. While these totals represent the magnitude of potentially affected biodiversity and wetlands, taxonomic biodiversity is only one of many critical facets of biodiversity27, and freshwater stress and storage trends are but two of many variables impacting global biodiversity28. Thus, we urge caution in interpreting the role of freshwater stress and storage in driving differences in these biodiversity distributions.

The most vulnerable populations to freshwater stress and storage loss

To better characterize social vulnerability, freshwater stress and storage loss must be placed in the context of social adaptability. We mapped and analyzed the co-occurrence of freshwater stress and storage trends with an existing global dataset of social adaptive capacity23 summarized at the basin scale (Fig. 2). Social adaptive capacity (Fig. 2a), or adaptability, represents “the ability of the system to respond to disturbances”29 and is derived based on input indicators of governance, economic strength, and human development. This consideration of social adaptability enables more representative estimates of social, agricultural, and economic activity that are vulnerable to the co-occurrence of freshwater stress and storage loss. To consider freshwater stress and storage loss together, we developed the basin freshwater status indicator (Box 1) where higher values indicate co-occurring freshwater stress and storage loss (Fig. 2b, see “Methods” section).

Fig. 2: The relationship between basin freshwater status and social adaptive capacity.
figure 2

a Social adaptive capacity, or adaptability, per basin. b Basin freshwater status, representing the combination of freshwater stress and storage trend per basin (see “Methods” section). c Combinations of basin freshwater status and social adaptability. Values overlaying the legend indicate the number of basins satisfying each set of conditions. dg The exposure of social-ecological activity to basin freshwater status (x-axis coordinate) and social adaptive capacity (y-axis coordinate), with the size of each circle scaled based on the basin’s value respective to each plotting dimension. These distributions are summarized below each plot. P notation represents the percentile distribution.

We found 73 basins to possess low levels of social adaptability and severe basin freshwater status (Fig. 2c). These basins concentrate in Northern, and Eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Western, Central, and Southern Asia; although vulnerable basins are also found in northeast Brazil, Southern Africa, and northern China. These basins encompass approximately 1.2 billion people, 12% of global food crop production, and 6% of global GDP (Fig. 2d–f). Conversely, 119 and 49 basins are found to have similarly severe basin freshwater status yet have moderate or high levels of social adaptability, respectively. These basins are located in southwestern USA and Mexico, Chile and Argentina, the Arabian Peninsula, regions surrounding the Caspian Sea, western Australia, and the North China Plain.

These differences in social adaptability across basins with severe freshwater status (i.e., co-occurring freshwater stress and storage loss) raise important economic considerations. First, greater social adaptability likely coincides with greater technological and economic capacity to pursue development. This development may consume greater…



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