Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
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4. Natural and Human Systems

Natural and human systems are expected to be exposed to climatic variations such as changes in the average, range, and variability of temperature and precipitation, as well as the frequency and severity of weather events. Systems also would be exposed to indirect effects from climate change such as sea-level rise, soil moisture changes, changes in land and water condition, changes in the frequency of fire and pest infestation, and changes in the distribution of infectious disease vectors and hosts. The sensitivity of a system to these exposures depends on system characteristics and includes the potential for adverse and beneficial effects. The potential for a system to sustain adverse impacts is moderated by adaptive capacity. The capacity to adapt human management of systems is determined by access to resources, information and technology, the skill and knowledge to use them, and the stability and effectiveness of cultural, economic, social, and governance institutions that facilitate or constrain how human systems respond.

4.1. Water Resources

Figure TS-3: The pattern of changes in runoff largely follows the pattern of simulated changes in precipitation, which varies between climate models. The modeled increases in runoff shown in both maps [(a) HadCM2 ensemble mean and (b) HadCM3; see Section of Chapter 4 for discussion of models and scenarios used] for high latitudes and southeast Asia, and decreases in central Asia, the area around the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and Australia are broadly consistent—in terms of direction of change—across most climate models. In other parts of the world, changes in precipitation and runoff vary between climate change scenarios.

There are apparent trends in streamflow volumes—increases and decreases—in many regions. However, confidence that these trends are a result of climate change is low because of factors such as the variability of hydrological behavior over time, the brevity of instrumental records, and the response of river flows to stimuli other than climate change. In contrast, there is high confidence that observations of widespread accelerated glacier retreat and shifts in the timing of streamflow from spring toward winter in many areas are associated with observed increases in temperature. High confidence in these findings exists because these changes are driven by rising temperature and are unaffected by factors that influence streamflow volumes. Glacier retreat will continue, and many small glaciers may disappear (high confidence). The rate of retreat will depend on the rate of temperature rise. [, 4.3.11]

The effect of climate change on streamflow and groundwater recharge varies regionally and among scenarios, largely following projected changes in precipitation. In some parts of the world, the direction of change is consistent between scenarios, although the magnitude is not. In other parts of the world, the direction of change is uncertain. Possible streamflow changes under two climate change scenarios are shown in Figure TS-3. Confidence in the projected direction and magnitude of change in streamflow and groundwater recharge is largely dependent on confidence in the projected changes in precipitation. The mapped increase in streamflow in high latitudes and southeast Asia and the decrease in streamflow in central Asia, the area around the Mediterranean, and southern Africa are broadly consistent across climate models. Changes in other areas vary between climate models. [4.3.5,]

Peak streamflow will move from spring to winter in many areas where snowfall currently is an important component of the water balance (high confidence). Higher temperatures mean that a greater proportion of winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and therefore is not stored on the land surface until it melts in spring. In particularly cold areas, an increase in temperature would still mean that winter precipitation falls as snow, so there would be little change in streamflow timing in these regions. The greatest changes therefore are likely to be in "marginal" zones—including central and eastern Europe and the southern Rocky Mountain chain—where a small temperature rise reduces snowfall substantially. []

Water quality generally would be degraded by higher water temperatures (high confidence). The effect of temperature on water quality would be modified by changes in flow volume, which may either exacerbate or lessen the effect of temperature, depending on the direction of change in flow volume. Other things being equal, increasing water temperature alters the rate of operation of biogeochemical processes (some degrading, some cleaning) and, most important, lowers the dissolved oxygen concentration of water. In rivers this effect may be offset to an extent by increased streamflow—which would dilute chemical concentrations further—or enhanced by lower streamflow, which would increase concentrations. In lakes, changes in mixing may offset or exaggerate the effects of increased temperature. [4.3.10]

Flood magnitude and frequency are likely to increase in most regions, and low flows are likely to decrease in many regions. The general direction of change in extreme flows and flow variability is broadly consistent among climate change scenarios, although confidence in the potential magnitude of change in any catchment is low. The general increase in flood magnitude and frequency is a consequence of a projected general increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events, although the effect of a given change in precipitation depends on catchment characteristics. Changes in low flows are a function of changes in precipitation and evaporation. Evaporation generally is projected to increase, which may lead to lower low flows even where precipitation increases or shows little change. [4.3.8, 4.3.9]

Approximately 1.7 billion people, one-third of the world's population, presently live in countries that are water-stressed (i.e., using more than 20% of their renewable water supply—a commonly used indicator of water stress). This number is projected to increase to about 5 billion by 2025, depending on the rate of population growth. Projected climate change could further decrease 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.

Demand for water generally is increasing, as a result of population growth and economic development, but is falling in some countries. Climate change may decrease water availability in some water-stressed regions and increase it in others. Climate change is unlikely to have a large effect on municipal and industrial demands but may substantially affect irrigation withdrawals. In the municipal and industrial sectors, it is likely that nonclimatic drivers will continue to have very substantial effects on demand for water. Irrigation withdrawals, however, are more climatically determined, but whether they increase or decrease in a given area depends on the change in precipitation: Higher temperatures, hence crop evaporative demand, would mean that the general tendency would be toward an increase in irrigation demands. [4.4.2, 4.4.3, 4.5.2]

The impact of climate change on water resources depends not only on changes in the volume, timing, and quality of streamflow and recharge but also on system characteristics, changing pressures on the system, how management of the system evolves, and what adaptations to climate change are implemented. Nonclimatic changes may have a greater impact on water resources than climate change. Water resources systems are evolving continually to meet changing management challenges. Many of the increased pressures will increase vulnerability to climate change, but many management changes will reduce vulnerability. Unmanaged systems are likely to be most vulnerable to climate change. By definition, these systems have no management structures in place to buffer the effects of hydrological variability. [4.5.2]

Climate change challenges existing water resources management practices by adding uncertainty. Integrated water resources management will enhance the potential for adaptation to change. The historic basis for designing and operating infrastructure no longer holds with climate change because it cannot be assumed that the future hydrological regime will be the same as that of the past. The key challenge, therefore, is incorporating uncertainty into water resources planning and management. Integrated water resources management is an increasingly used means of reconciling different and changing water uses and demands, and it appears to offer greater flexibility than conventional water resources management. Improved ability to forecast streamflow weeks or months ahead also would significantly enhance water management and its ability to cope with a changing hydrological variability. [4.6]

Adaptive capacity (specifically, the ability to implement integrated water resources management), however, is very unevenly distributed across the world. In practice, it may be very difficult to change water management practices in a country where, for example, management institutions and market-like processes are not well developed. The challenge, therefore, is to develop ways to introduce integrated water management practices into specific institutional settings—which is necessary even in the absence of climate change to improve the effectiveness of water management. [4.6.4]

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