Countries sharing river basins are often dependent upon water originating outside their boundaries; meaning that without that upstream water, water scarcity may occur with flow-on implications for water use and management. We develop a formalisation of this concept drawing on ideas about the transition between regimes from resilience literature, using water stress and water shortage as indicators of water scarcity. In our analytical framework, dependency occurs if water from upstream is needed to avoid scarcity. This can be diagnosed by comparing different types of water availability on which a sub-basin relies, in particular local runoff and upstream inflows. At the same time, possible upstream water withdrawals reduce available water downstream, influencing the latter water availability. By developing a framework of scarcity and dependency, we contribute to the understanding of transitions between system regimes. We apply our analytical framework to global transboundary river basins at the scale of sub-basin areas (SBAs). Our results show that 1175 million people live under water stress (42 % of the total transboundary population). Surprisingly, the majority (1150 million) of these currently suffer from stress only due to their own excessive water use and possible water from upstream does not have impact on the stress status - i.e. they are not yet dependent on upstream water to avoid stress - but could still impact on the intensity of the stress. At the same time, 386 million people (14 %) live in SBAs that can avoid stress owing to available water from upstream and have thus upstream dependency. In the case of water shortage, 306 million people (11 %) live in SBAs dependent on upstream water to avoid possible shortage. The identification of transitions between system regimes sheds light on how SBAs may be affected in the future, potentially contributing to further refined analysis of inter- and intrabasin hydro-political power relations and strategic planning of management practices in transboundary basins.