Freshwater scarcity is increasingly perceived as a global systemic risk. Previous global water scarcity assessments, measuring water scarcity annually, have underestimated experienced water scarcity by failing to capture the seasonal fluctuations in water consumption and availability. We assess blue water scarcity globally at a high spatial resolution on a monthly basis. We find that two-thirds of the global population (4.0 billion people) live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least 1 month of the year. Nearly half of those people live in India and China.

This study quantifies and maps the water footprint (WF) of humanity at a high spatial resolution. It reports on consumptive use of rainwater (green WF) and ground and surface water (blue WF) and volumes of water polluted (gray WF). Water footprints are estimated per nation from both a production and consumption perspective. International virtual water flows are estimated based on trade in agricultural and industrial commodities. The global annual average WF in the period 1996–2005 was 9,087 Gm3/y (74% green, 11% blue, 15% gray). Agricultural production contributes 92%.

Freshwater scarcity is a growing concern, placing considerable importance on the accuracy of indicators used to characterize and map water scarcity worldwide. We improve upon past efforts by using estimates of blue water footprints (consumptive use of ground- and surface water flows) rather than water withdrawals, accounting for the flows needed to sustain critical ecological functions and by considering monthly rather than annual values. We analyzed 405 river basins for the period 1996–2005.