The global water use is 18 percent greater than what was previously estimated. Researchers from Sweden report that the current rate of water consumption is unsustainable.

An analysis of water and climate data from 1901 to 2008 from 100 large water basins around the world revealed more water loss to the atmosphere compared with conclusions from earlier studies. The sustainable water use is 4,000 cubic kilometres per year, however, the current level of water consumption is 4,370 cubic kilometres.

The researchers blame the loss to human activities. Water management techniques such as irrigation and damming rivers to create reservoirs, rather than climate conditions or geographic location, explain the results.

The water cycle dictates that after evaporation, water falls back down to earth again. It could fall on mountains or fill lakes and rivers. It could also stop being freshwater once it goes in the salty ocean, which is problematic especially to places where there is already a scarcity of water.

“As you have a lot of consumption, and you’re sending this water back to the atmosphere, it’s less water that’s available on the rivers, in the streams, so it’s actually well linked to water availability on Earth,” study author Fernando Jaramillo told The Christian Science Monitor. “We are doing something big to the water cycle.”

“A scientific motivation for this [study] is that we want to understand what is it that drives changes in the freshwater system on land,” said the study’s senior author Georgia Destouni, the Washington Post reports. “We started to see that the landscape drivers of change (including human water management) were actually important nearly everywhere.”

The study stresses the need for better monitoring of water use. The management techniques have a bigger impact to water levels than the effects of climate change. If better water management is enacted, the effects of climate change may be alleviated.

“That’s another future direction our society needs to take, to go towards greater resource efficiency,” Destouni said. “And if we don’t keep track of how we use water, we cannot reach that efficiency, or even understand what that efficiency means for the future.”

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