Water scarcity is rapidly increasing in many regions. In a novel, multi-model assessment, we examine how human interventions (HI: land use and land cover change, man-made reservoirs and human water use) affected monthly river water availability and water scarcity over the period 1971–2010. Here we show that HI drastically change the critical dimensions of water scarcity, aggravating water scarcity for 8.8% (7.4–16.5%) of the global population but alleviating it for another 8.3% (6.4–15.8%).