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Freshwater scarcity is a growing concern, placing considerable importance on the accuracy of indicators used to characterize and map water scarcity worldwide. We improve upon past efforts by using estimates of blue water footprints (consumptive use of ground- and surface water flows) rather than water withdrawals, accounting for the flows needed to sustain critical ecological functions and by considering monthly rather than annual values. We analyzed 405 river basins for the period 1996–2005. In 201 basins with 2.67 billion inhabitants there was severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. The ecological and economic consequences of increasing degrees of water scarcity – as evidenced by the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo), Indus, and Murray-Darling River Basins – can include complete desiccation during dry seasons, decimation of aquatic biodiversity, and substantial economic disruption.