Domestic Groundwater Depletion Supports China's Full Supply Chains

Siao Sun, Qiuhong Tang, Megan Konar, Zhongwei Huang, Tom Gleeson, Ting Ma, Chuanglin Fang, Ximing Cai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Groundwater use underpins much economic production. The unsustainable use of groundwater threatens environmental flows in surface waters, sustainable development, and future food security. The connection between agricultural trade and groundwater depletion has been recently highlighted, but how groundwater depletion supports the production of industrial and tertiary goods, trade, and consumption remains less well understood. Here, we present the first analysis of groundwater use and depletion embedded in the complete supply chain of China (including primary, secondary, and tertiary products). We use a multiregion input-output analysis coupled with the high-resolution groundwater use modeling to track groundwater depletion from production to end consumer. Our modeling results show that groundwater depletion occurred primarily in water scarce North China for agricultural production, but the depleted resource was then incorporated throughout the supply chain and dispersed across Chinese and international consumers. ∼64 billion m3 yr−1 (±1 billion m3 yr−1) groundwater was depleted in China, in which more than a half was from Xinjiang, Hebei, Henan and Heilongjiang Provinces. Approximately 40% of the groundwater depletion can be traced to interprovincial transfer (21 billion m3 yr−1) and export (4.8 billion m3 yr−1). The hot spots for final consumption of groundwater depletion were major cities in both North and South China. Importantly, over 60% of the groundwater depletion was embodied in industrial and tertiary products for final consumption, highlighting the importance of tracing groundwater through the full economy. Groundwater depletion represents a long-term risk to supply chains, and policy-makers can use this understanding to sustainably manage groundwater and diversify supply chains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021WR030695
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022


  • groundwater
  • socioeconomic system
  • supply chain
  • sustainable water use
  • virtual water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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