Monthly blue water footprint caps in a river basin to achieve sustainable water consumption: The role of reservoirs

La Zhuo*, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, Pute Wu, Xining Zhao

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)
268 Downloads (Pure)


The blue water footprint (WF) measures the consumption of runoff in a river basin. In order to ensure sustainable water consumption, setting a monthly blue WF cap, that is an upper-limit to the blue WF in a river basin each month, can be a suitable policy instrument. The blue WF cap in a river basin depends on the precipitation that becomes runoff and the need to maintain a minimum flow for sustaining ecosystems and livelihoods. Reservoirs along the river generally smooth runoff variability and thus raise the WF cap and reduce blue water scarcity during the dry season. Previous water scarcity studies, considering the ratio of actual blue WF to the blue WF cap under natural background conditions, have not studied this effect of reservoir storages. Here we assess how water reservoirs influence blue WF caps over time and how they affect the variability of blue water scarcity in a river basin. We take the Yellow River Basin over the period January 2002–July 2006 as case study and consider data on observed storage changes in five large reservoirs along the main stream. Results indicate that reservoirs redistribute the blue WF cap and blue water scarcity levels over time. Monthly blue WF caps were generally lowered by reservoir storage during the flood season (July–October) and raised by reservoir releases over the period of highest crop demand (March–June). However, with water storage exceeding 20% of natural runoff in most rainy months, reservoirs contribute to “scarcity in the wet months”, which is to be understood as a situation in which environmental flow requirements related to the occurrence of natural peak flows are no longer met.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)891-899
Number of pages9
JournalScience of the total environment
Issue numberPart 1
Early online date8 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2019


  • Blue water scarcity
  • Environmental flow requirement
  • Reservoir storage
  • Sustainable blue water footprint


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