Skip to main content
SLU publication database (SLUpub)

Research article2019Peer reviewedOpen access

Human domination of the global water cycle absent from depictions and perceptions

Abbott, Benjamin W.; Bishop, Kevin; Zarnetske, Jay P.; Minaudo, Camille; Chapin, F. S., III; Krause, Stefan; Hannah, David M.; Conner, Lafe; Ellison, David; Godsey, Sarah E.; Plont, Stephen; Marcais, Jean; Kolbe, Tamara; Huebner, Amanda; Frei, Rebecca J.; Hampton, Tyler; Gu, Sen; Buhman, Madeline; Sayedi, Sayedeh Sara; Ursache, Ovidiu;
Show more authors


Human water use, climate change and land conversion have created a water crisis for billions of individuals and many ecosystems worldwide. Global water stocks and fluxes are estimated empirically and with computer models, but this information is conveyed to policymakers and researchers through water cycle diagrams. Here we compiled a synthesis of the global water cycle, which we compared with 464 water cycle diagrams from around the world. Although human freshwater appropriation now equals half of global river discharge, only 15% of the water cycle diagrams depicted human interaction with water. Only 2% of the diagrams showed climate change or water pollution-two of the central causes of the global water crisis-which effectively conveys a false sense of water security. A single catchment was depicted in 95% of the diagrams, which precludes the representation of teleconnections such as ocean-land interactions and continental moisture recycling. These inaccuracies correspond with specific dimensions of water mismanagement, which suggest that flaws in water diagrams reflect and reinforce the misunderstanding of global hydrology by policymakers, researchers and the public. Correct depictions of the water cycle will not solve the global water crisis, but reconceiving this symbol is an important step towards equitable water governance, sustainable development and planetary thinking in the Anthropocene.

Published in

Nature Geoscience
2019, Volume: 12, number: 7, pages: 533-540

      SLU Authors

      • Sustainable Development Goals

        SDG3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
        SDG6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
        SDG12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
        SDG13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

        UKÄ Subject classification

        Oceanography, Hydrology, Water Resources

        Publication identifier


        Permanent link to this page (URI)