Urbanizing delta regions face seasonal water shortages induced by rising salt intrusion. Decreasing river discharge is readily listed as the major cause of water shortage events. Yet, observations of river discharge often fail to support this attribution. Evidence of the association between severe salt intrusion and water use is weak and inconclusive. The present study asks to what extent water use contributes to salt intrusion and freshwater shortages. Moreover, it asks whether management of water use rather than water supply can be part of mitigating salt intrusion. The contribution of water use in causing severe salt intrusion events is assessed by first quantifying monthly sectorial water use and next comparing it with threshold discharges from the graded salt intrusion warning system. The case study region is the Pearl River Delta, China. Sectorial water use is found to substantially vary between months. In particular in the dry month in which water shortages are reported, water use can be more than 25% of discharge and thus exacerbates salt intrusion. Evaluation of coping strategies shows that improved water use can alleviate salt intrusion by up to one level in the warning system, thus preventing problems at a number of water abstraction points.