Human water use, climate change and land conversion have created a water crisis for billions of individuals and many ecosystems worldwide. Global water stocks and fluxes are estimated empirically and with computer models, but this information is conveyed to policymakers and researchers through water cycle diagrams. Here we compiled a synthesis of the global water cycle, which we compared with 464 water cycle diagrams from around the world. Although human freshwater appropriation now equals half of global river discharge, only 15% of the water cycle diagrams depicted human interaction with water. Only 2% of the diagrams showed climate change or water pollution—two of the central causes of the global water crisis—which effectively conveys a false sense of water security. A single catchment was depicted in 95% of the diagrams, which precludes the representation of teleconnections such as ocean-land interactions and continental moisture recycling. These inaccuracies correspond with specific dimensions of water mismanagement, which suggest that flaws in water diagrams reflect and reinforce the misunderstanding of global hydrology by policymakers, researchers and the public. Correct depictions of the water cycle will not solve the global water crisis, but reconceiving this symbol is an important step towards equitable water governance, sustainable development and planetary thinking in the Anthropocene.