Capping Human Water Footprints in the World's River Basins

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Abstract

Increased water demand and overexploitation of limited freshwater resources lead to water scarcity, economic downturn, and conflicts over water in many places around the world. A sensible policy measure to bridle humanity's water footprint, then, is to set local and time‐specific water footprint caps, to ensure that water appropriation for human uses remains within ecological boundaries. This study estimates—for all river basins in the world—monthly blue water flows that can be allocated to human uses, while explicitly earmarking water for nature. Addressing some implications of temporal variability, we quantify trade‐offs between potentially violating environmental flow requirements versus underutilizing available flow—a trade‐off that is particularly pronounced in basins with a high seasonal and interannual variability. We discuss several limitations and challenges that need to be overcome if setting water footprint caps is to become a practically applicable policy instrument, including the need (for policy makers) to reach agreement on which specific capping procedure to follow. We conclude by relating local and time‐specific water footprint caps to the planetary boundary for freshwater use.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2019EF001363
JournalEarth's Future
Volume8
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020

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