Water is indispensable for Earth resilience and sustainable development. The capacity of social-ecological systems to deal with shocks, adapting to changing conditions and transforming in situations of crisis are fundamentally dependent on the functions of water to e.g., regulate the Earth’s climate, support biomass production, and supply water resources for human societies. However, massive, inter-connected, human interference involving climate forcing, water withdrawal, dam constructions, and land-use change have significantly disturbed these water functions and induced regime shifts in social-ecological systems. In many cases, changes in core water functions have pushed systems beyond tipping points and led to fundamental shifts in system feedback. Examples of such transgressions, where water has played a critical role, are collapse of aquatic systems beyond water quality and quantity thresholds, desertification due to soil and ecosystem degradation, and tropical forest dieback associated with self-amplifying moisture and carbon feedbacks. Here, we aggregate the volumes and flows of water involved in water functions globally, and review the evidence of freshwater related linear collapse and non-linear tipping points in ecological and social systems through the lens of resilience theory. Based on the literature review, we synthesize the role of water in mediating different types of ecosystem regime shifts, and generalize the process by which life support systems are at risk of collapsing due to loss of water functions. We conclude that water plays a fundamental role in providing social-ecological resilience, and suggest that further research is needed to understand how the erosion of water resilience at local and regional scale may potentially interact, cascade, or amplify through the complex, globally hyper-connected networks of the Anthropocene.
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