Freshwater scarcity has been cited as the major crisis of the 21st century, but it is surprisingly hard to describe the nature of the global water crisis. We conducted a meta-analysis of 22 coupled human–water system case studies, using qualitative comparison analysis (QCA) to identify water resource system outcomes and the factors that drive them. The cases exhibited different outcomes for human wellbeing that could be grouped into a six “syndromes”: groundwater depletion, ecological destruction, drought-driven conflicts, unmet subsistence needs, resource capture by elite, and water reallocation to nature. For syndromes that were not successful adaptations, three characteristics gave cause for concern: (1) unsustainability—a decline in the water stock or ecosystem function that could result in a long-term steep decline in future human wellbeing; (2) vulnerability—high variability in water resource availability combined with inadequate coping capacity, leading to temporary drops in human wellbeing; (3) chronic scarcity—persistent inadequate access and hence low conditions of human wellbeing. All syndromes could be explained by a limited set of causal factors that fell into four categories: demand changes, supply changes, governance systems, and infrastructure/technology. By considering basins as members of syndrome classes and tracing common causal pathways of water crises, water resource analysts and planners might develop improved water policies aimed at reducing vulnerability, inequity, and unsustainability of freshwater systems.