Freshwater is one of the most critical elements for the sustainable development of ecosystems and societies. River basins, concomitant with administrative zones, form a common unit for freshwater management. So far, no comprehensive, global analysis exists that would link the ecological challenges of the planet’s river basins to the capacity of the societies to cope with them. We address this gap by performing a geospatial resilience analysis for a global set of 541 river basins. We use the social‐ecological systems approach by relating three ecological vulnerability factors (human footprint, natural hazards, and water scarcity) with three adaptive capacity factors (governance, economy, and human development), based on temporal trajectories from 1990 to 2015. Additionally, we examine resilience by subtracting ecological vulnerability from adaptive capacity. The most striking result is the fundamentally different patterns of controlling factors of resilience in different developing regions, particularly those of Africa and Asia. Their root causes are particularly low adaptive capacity in Africa and high ecological vulnerability in Asia. Alarmingly, the difference between those continents grew within the study period. Finally, this study highlights the rapid dynamics of adaptive capacity in comparison to ecological vulnerability, the latter having more inertia. Their fragile balance is of our interest; they can either support or counteract each other depending on the geographic location.