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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.