Taking the Yangtze River Source Basin (YRSB) and Shule River Basin (SRB) as two typical cases, the sustainability of the water resources in these two basins was evaluated using the level of water stress (LWS) from sustainable development goal 6.4.2, and the regulating effect of the glacier runoff on the LWS was quantified. From 2000 to 2030, the level of socioeconomic development in the YRSB is low, and the total water consumption is only about 0.18 × 108 m3, whereas the SRB has a relatively high level of socioeconomic development and total water consumption is about 10 × 108 m3, i.e., 50 times higher than that in the YRSB. For the aforementioned reasons, the SRB's LWS is much higher than the YRSB's, resulting in a very low sustainability of water resources. As natural assets, glaciers flow downstream in the runoff mode, so compensation at the watershed scale should be considered. In the basin, the optimal allocation of water resources is needed. At the inter-basin scale, the compensation mechanism of glacier water resources needs to be improved.

  • The proportion of glacial runoff in water resources and water demand in the Shule River Basin is far higher than in the Yangtze River Source Basin.

  • Glacial runoff reduced significantly water stress in the Shule River.

  • We provide a new framework for the spatial flow of glacier water services and suggest the glacier water compensation mechanism as an important pathway to sustainable water use.

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