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      Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint

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          Abstract

          Groundwater is a life-sustaining resource that supplies water to billions of people, plays a central part in irrigated agriculture and influences the health of many ecosystems. Most assessments of global water resources have focused on surface water, but unsustainable depletion of groundwater has recently been documented on both regional and global scales. It remains unclear how the rate of global groundwater depletion compares to the rate of natural renewal and the supply needed to support ecosystems. Here we define the groundwater footprint (the area required to sustain groundwater use and groundwater-dependent ecosystem services) and show that humans are overexploiting groundwater in many large aquifers that are critical to agriculture, especially in Asia and North America. We estimate that the size of the global groundwater footprint is currently about 3.5 times the actual area of aquifers and that about 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater resources and/or groundwater-dependent ecosystems are under threat. That said, 80 per cent of aquifers have a groundwater footprint that is less than their area, meaning that the net global value is driven by a few heavily overexploited aquifers. The groundwater footprint is the first tool suitable for consistently evaluating the use, renewal and ecosystem requirements of groundwater at an aquifer scale. It can be combined with the water footprint and virtual water calculations, and be used to assess the potential for increasing agricultural yields with renewable groundwaterref. The method could be modified to evaluate other resources with renewal rates that are slow and spatially heterogeneous, such as fisheries, forestry or soil.

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          Most cited references 26

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          Solutions for a cultivated planet.

          Increasing population and consumption are placing unprecedented demands on agriculture and natural resources. Today, approximately a billion people are chronically malnourished while our agricultural systems are concurrently degrading land, water, biodiversity and climate on a global scale. To meet the world's future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture's environmental footprint must shrink dramatically. Here we analyse solutions to this dilemma, showing that tremendous progress could be made by halting agricultural expansion, closing 'yield gaps' on underperforming lands, increasing cropping efficiency, shifting diets and reducing waste. Together, these strategies could double food production while greatly reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture.
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            Global hydrological cycles and world water resources.

            Water is a naturally circulating resource that is constantly recharged. Therefore, even though the stocks of water in natural and artificial reservoirs are helpful to increase the available water resources for human society, the flow of water should be the main focus in water resources assessments. The climate system puts an upper limit on the circulation rate of available renewable freshwater resources (RFWR). Although current global withdrawals are well below the upper limit, more than two billion people live in highly water-stressed areas because of the uneven distribution of RFWR in time and space. Climate change is expected to accelerate water cycles and thereby increase the available RFWR. This would slow down the increase of people living under water stress; however, changes in seasonal patterns and increasing probability of extreme events may offset this effect. Reducing current vulnerability will be the first step to prepare for such anticipated changes.
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              Global Water Resources: Vulnerability from Climate Change and Population Growth

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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Nature
                Nature
                Springer Science and Business Media LLC
                0028-0836
                1476-4687
                August 2012
                August 8 2012
                August 2012
                : 488
                : 7410
                : 197-200
                Article
                10.1038/nature11295
                22874965
                © 2012

                http://www.springer.com/tdm

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