World freshwater ecosystems are significantly deteriorating at a faster rate than other ecosystems. Water withdrawals are recognized as one of the main drivers of growing water stress in river basins worldwide.
Over the years, much effort has been devoted to quantify water withdrawals at a global scale; however, comparisons are not simple because the uneven spatiotemporal distribution of surface water resources entails that the same amount of consumed water does not have the same environmental cost in different times or places.
In order to account for this spatiotemporal heterogeneity, this work proposes a novel index to assess the environmental cost of a withdrawal from a generic river section. The index depends on (i) the environmental relevance of the impacted fluvial ecosystem (e.g., bed-load transport capacity, width of the riparian belt, biodiversity richness) and (ii) the downstream river network affected by the water withdrawal.
The environmental cost has been estimated in each and every river section worldwide considering a reference withdrawal. Being referred to a unitary reference withdrawal that can occur in any river section worldwide, our results can be suitably arranged for describing any scenario of surface water consumption (i.e., as the superposition of the actual pattern of withdrawals). The index aims to support the interpretation of the volumetric measure of surface water withdrawal with a perspective that takes into account the fluvial system where the withdrawal actually occurs.
The application of the index highlights the river regions where withdrawals can cause higher environmental costs, with the challenge of weighting each water withdrawal considering the responsibilities that it has on downstream freshwater ecosystems.