Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute


Date of this Version


Document Type



2019 Authors



PNAS | March 12, 2019 | vol. 116 | no. 11 | 4893–4898


Green water––rainfall over land that eventually flows back to the atmosphere as evapotranspiration––is the main source of water to produce food, feed, fiber, timber, and bioenergy. To understand how freshwater scarcity constrains production of these goods, we need to consider limits to the green water footprint (WFg), the green water flow allocated to human society. However, research traditionally focuses on scarcity of blue water––groundwater and surface water. Here we expand the debate on water scarcity by considering green water scarcity (WSg). At 5 × 5 arc-minute spatial resolution, we quantify WFg and the maximum sustainable level to this footprint (WFg,m), while accounting for green water require- ments to support biodiversity. We then estimate WSg per country as the ratio of the national aggregate WFg to the national aggre- gate WFg,m. We find that globally WFg amounts to 56% of WFg,m, and overshoots it in several places, for example in countries in Europe, Central America, the Middle East, and South Asia. The sustainably available green water flows in these countries are mostly or fully allocated to human activities (predominately agri- culture and forestry), occasionally at the cost of green water flows earmarked for nature. By ignoring limits to the growing human WFg, we risk further loss of ecosystem values that depend on the remaining untouched green water flows. We emphasize that green water is a critical and limited resource that should explicitly be part of any assessment of water scarcity, food security, or bioenergy potential.