IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

Freshwater resources and their management

The impacts of climate change on freshwater systems and their management are mainly due to the observed and projected increases in temperature, evaporation, sea level and precipitation variability (very high confidence).

More than one-sixth of the world’s population live in glacier- or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by a decrease in water volume stored in glaciers and snowpack, an increase in the ratio of winter to annual flows, and possibly a reduction in low flows caused by decreased glacier extent or melt-season snow water storage [3.4.1, 3.4.3]. Sea-level rise will extend areas of salinisation of groundwater and estuaries, resulting in a decrease in freshwater availability for humans and ecosystems in coastal areas [3.2, 3.4.2]. Increased precipitation intensity and variability is projected to increase the risk of floods and droughts in many areas [3.3.1]. Up to 20% of the world’s population live in river basins that are likely to be affected by increased flood hazard by the 2080s in the course of global warming [3.4.3].

The number of people living in severely stressed river basins is projected to increase significantly from 1.4-1.6 billion in 1995 to 4.3-6.9 billion in 2050, for the SRES A2 scenario (medium confidence).

The population at risk of increasing water stress for the full range of SRES scenarios is projected to be: 0.4-1.7 billion, 1.0-2.0 billion and 1.1-3.2 billion, in the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s, respectively [3.5.1]. In the 2050s (A2 scenario), 262-983 million people are likely to move into the water-stressed category [3.5.1]. Water stress is projected to decrease by the 2050s on 20-29% of the global land area (considering two climate models and the SRES scenarios A2 and B2) and to increase on 62-76% of the global land area [3.5.1].

Semi-arid and arid areas are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change on freshwater (high confidence).

Many of these areas (e.g., Mediterranean Basin, western USA, southern Africa, north-eastern Brazil, southern and eastern Australia) will suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change (see Figure TS.5) [3.4, 3.7]. Efforts to offset declining surface water availability due to increasing precipitation variability will be hampered by the fact that groundwater recharge is likely to decrease considerably in some already water-stressed regions [3.4.2], where vulnerability is often exacerbated by the rapid increase of population and water demand [3.5.1].

Figure TS.5

Figure TS.5. Illustrative map of future climate change impacts on freshwater which are a threat to the sustainable development of the affected regions. Background shows ensemble mean change of annual runoff, in percent, between the present (1981-2000) and 2081-2100 for the SRES A1B emissions scenario; blue denotes increased runoff, red denotes decreased runoff. Underlying map from Nohara et al. (2006) [F3.8].

Higher water temperatures, increased precipitation intensity and longer periods of low flows are likely to exacerbate many forms of water pollution, with impacts on ecosystems, human health, and water system reliability and operating costs (high confidence).

These pollutants include sediments, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, pathogens, pesticides, salt and thermal pollution [3.2, 3.4.4, 3.4.5].

Climate change affects the function and operation of existing water infrastructure as well as water management practices (very high confidence).

Adverse effects of climate on freshwater systems aggravate the impacts of other stresses, such as population growth, changing economic activity, land-use change and urbanisation [3.3.2, 3.5]. Globally, water demand will grow in the coming decades, primarily due to population growth and increased affluence. Regionally, large changes in irrigation water demand as a result of climate change are likely [3.5.1]. Current water management practices are very likely to be inadequate to reduce the negative impacts of climate change on water-supply reliability, flood risk, health, energy and aquatic ecosystems [3.4, 3.5]. Improved incorporation of current climate variability into water-related management is likely to make adaptation to future climate change easier [3.6].

Adaptation procedures and risk management practices for the water sector are being developed in some countries and regions (e.g., Caribbean, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, UK, USA, Germany) that recognise the uncertainty of projected hydrological changes (very high confidence).

Since the IPCC Third Assessment, uncertainties have been evaluated and their interpretation has improved, and new methods (e.g., ensemble-based approaches) are being developed for their characterisation [3.4, 3.5]. Nevertheless, quantitative projections of changes in precipitation, river flows and water levels at the river-basin scale remain uncertain [3.3.1, 3.4].

The negative impacts of climate change on freshwater systems outweigh its benefits (high confidence).

All IPCC regions show an overall net negative impact of climate change on water resources and freshwater ecosystems. Areas in which runoff is projected to decline are likely to face a reduction in the value of the services provided by water resources. The beneficial impacts of increased annual runoff in other areas is likely to be tempered in some areas by negative effects of increased precipitation variability and seasonal runoff shifts on water supply, water quality and flood risks (see Figure TS.5) [3.4, 3.5].