Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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3. Effects on and Vulnerability of Natural and Human Systems 3.1. Hydrology and Water Resources

Figure SPM-3: Projected changes in average annual water runoff by 2050, relative to average runoff for 1961-1990, largely follow projected changes in precipitation. Changes in runoff are calculated with a hydrologic model using as inputs climate projections from two versions of the Hadley Centre atmosphere-ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) for a scenario of 1% per annum increase in effective carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere: (a) HadCM2 ensemble mean and (b) HadCM3. Projected increases in runoff in high latitudes and southeast Asia, and decreases in central Asia, the area around the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and Australia are broadly consistent across the Hadley Centre experiments, and with the precipitation projections of other AOGCM experiments. For other areas of the world, changes in precipitation and runoff are scenario- and model-dependent.

The effect of climate change on streamflow and groundwater recharge varies regionally and between climate scenarios, largely following projected changes in precipitation. A consistent projection across most climate change scenarios is for increases in annual mean streamflow in high latitudes and southeast Asia, and decreases in central Asia, the area around the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and Australia (medium confidence6) (see Figure SPM-3); the amount of change, however, varies between scenarios. For other areas, including mid-latitudes, there is no strong consistency in projections of streamflow, partly because of differences in projected rainfall and partly because of differences in projected evaporation, which can offset rainfall increases. The retreat of most glaciers is projected to accelerate, and many small glaciers may disappear (high confidence6). In general, the projected changes in average annual runoff are less robust than impacts based solely on temperature change because precipitation changes vary more between scenarios. At the catchment scale, the effect of a given change in climate varies with physical properties and vegetation of catchments, and may be in addition to land-cover changes. [4.1]

Approximately 1.7 billion people, one-third of the world's population, presently live in countries that are water-stressed (defined as using more than 20% of their renewable water supply, a commonly used indicator of water stress). This number is projected to increase to around 5 billion by 2025, depending on the rate of population growth. The projected climate change could further decrease the streamflow and groundwater recharge in many of these water-stressed countries—for example in central Asia, southern Africa, and countries around the Mediterranean Sea—but may increase it in some others. [4.1; see also 5.1.1, 5.2.3, 5.3.1, 5.4.1, 5.5.1, 5.6.2, and 5.8.4 for regional-scale information]

Demand for water is generally increasing due to population growth and economic development, but is falling in some countries because of increased efficiency of use. Climate change is unlikely to have a big effect on municipal and industrial water demands in general, but may substantially affect irrigation withdrawals, which depend on how increases in evaporation are offset or exaggerated by changes in precipitation. Higher temperatures, hence higher crop evaporative demand, mean that the general tendency would be towards an increase in irrigation demands. [4.1]

Flood magnitude and frequency could increase in many regions as a consequence of increased frequency of heavy precipitation events, which can increase runoff in most areas as well as groundwater recharge in some floodplains. Land-use change could exacerbate such events. Streamflow during seasonal low flow periods would decrease in many areas due to greater evaporation; changes in precipitation may exacerbate or offset the effects of increased evaporation. The projected climate change would degrade water quality through higher water temperatures and increased pollutant load from runoff and overflows of waste facilities. Quality would be degraded further where flows decrease, but increases in flows may mitigate to a certain extent some degradations in water quality by increasing dilution. Where snowfall is currently an important component of the water balance, a greater proportion of winter precipitation may fall as rain, and this can result in a more intense peak streamflow which in addition would move from spring to winter. [4.1]

The greatest vulnerabilities are likely to be in unmanaged water systems and systems that are currently stressed or poorly and unsustainably managed due to policies that discourage efficient water use and protection of water quality, inadequate watershed management, failure to manage variable water supply and demand, or lack of sound professional guidance. In unmanaged systems there are few or no structures in place to buffer the effects of hydrologic variability on water quality and supply. In unsustainably managed systems, water and land uses can add stresses that heighten vulnerability to climate change. [4.1]

Water resource management techniques, particularly hose of integrated water resource management, can be applied to adapt to hydrologic effects of climate change, and to additional uncertainty, so as to lessen vulnerabilities. Currently, supply-side approaches (e.g., increasing flood defenses, building weirs, utilizing water storage areas, including natural systems, improving infrastructure for water collection and distribution) are more widely used than demand-side approaches (which alter the exposure to stress); the latter is the focus of increasing attention. However, the capacity to implement effective management responses is unevenly distributed around the world and is low in many transition and developing countries. [4.1]

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