Deceleration of China’s human water use and its key drivers

Deceleration of China’s human water use and its key drivers

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2020 March


China’s rising food demand and fast economic growth increase water use and threaten water security. We present a spatially detailed survey-based reconstruction dataset of sectoral water use from 1965 to 2013 at the scale of small administrative units called prefectures. The data show that a widespread deceleration of water use in recent decades and the adoption of improved irrigation practices and industrial water recycling partly offset the increase driven by the rising water demand from economic growth and structural transition. These findings underscore the value of technological adoptions, including a determination of their potential, to help in designing targets and incentives for water scarcity mitigations.


Increased human water use combined with climate change have aggravated water scarcity from the regional to global scales. However, the lack of spatially detailed datasets limits our understanding of the historical water use trend and its key drivers. Here, we present a survey-based reconstruction of China’s sectoral water use in 341 prefectures during 1965 to 2013. The data indicate that water use has doubled during the entire study period, yet with a widespread slowdown of the growth rates from 10.66 km3⋅y−2 before 1975 to 6.23 km3⋅y−2 in 1975 to 1992, and further down to 3.59 km3⋅y−2 afterward. These decelerations were attributed to reduced water use intensities of irrigation and industry, which partly offset the increase driven by pronounced socioeconomic development (i.e., economic growth, population growth, and structural transitions) by 55% in 1975 to 1992 and 83% after 1992. Adoptions for highly efficient irrigation and industrial water recycling technologies explained most of the observed reduction of water use intensities across China. These findings challenge conventional views about an acceleration in water use in China and highlight the opposing roles of different drivers for water use projections.



Feng Zhou

Yan Bo

Philippe Ciais, +18 


and Yoshihide Wada

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