In this letter we analyse the temporal development of physical population-driven water scarcity, i.e. water shortage, over the period 0 AD to 2005 AD. This was done using population data derived from the HYDE dataset, and water resource availability based on the WaterGAP model results for the period 1961-90. Changes in historical water resources availability were simulated with the STREAM model, forced by climate output data of the ECBilt-CLIO-VECODE climate model. The water crowding index, i.e. Falkenmark water stress indicator, was used to identify water shortage in 284 sub-basins. Although our results show a few areas with moderate water shortage (1000-1700 m3/capita/yr) around the year 1800, water shortage began in earnest at around 1900, when 2% of the world population was under chronic water shortage (1000 m3/capita/yr). By 1960, this percentage had risen to 9%. From then on, the number of people under water shortage increased rapidly to the year 2005, by which time 35% of the world population lived in areas with chronic water shortage. In this study, the effects of changes in population on water shortage are roughly four times more important than changes in water availability as a result of long-term climatic change. Global trends in adaptation measures to cope with reduced water resources per capita, such as irrigated area, reservoir storage, groundwater abstraction, and global trade of agricultural products, closely follow the recent increase in global water shortage. © 2010 IOP Publishing Ltd.