CHALLENGES FOR FUTURE SUSTAINABLE WATER ?· CHALLENGES FOR FUTURE SUSTAINABLE WATER RESOURCES MANAGEMENT…
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CHALLENGES FOR FUTURE SUSTAINABLE WATER RESOURCES
MANAGEMENT IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Department of Geotechnology and Geohydraulics
University of Kassel, Germany
Human-induced effects on water resources are observed in many parts of the world.
These may include enhanced seawater intrusion, reduced aquifer storage, land subsidence, the
diminishment of base flow in rivers and streams, and increased potential for contamination.
The situation is further exacerbated by climate variability and predicted climate change - man-
made or naturally occurring - which affect the various components of the hydrological cycle
in ways yet not well understood and which are most likely to wreak havoc for water resources
availability and sustainability or increase their vulnerability in many regions of the world.
While there have been many studies and projects in recent years devoted to the investigation
of the effects of climate change on surface water resources, those devoted to the impacts on
groundwater are much less numerous and have only come to the fore more recently. This as
a consequence from the understanding that groundwater will be pivotal to sustainable water
supplies, because of its capacity to balance large variations in precipitation and demand in the
wake of climate variability or permanent change.
Here we discuss some of the concepts and approaches to that regard, with the emphasis on the
issues of numerical modeling which is indispensable for future predictions of water resources
systems as meteorological inputs and water needs will change. In principle this requires a
fully integrated modeling approach for flow and transport across the various compartment of
the hydrosphere, with the groundwater aquifer as the receiving end-member in the chain.
However, this is still a particularly challenging task, as these computational models must
resolve all the fundamental physical processes each by itself acting on a completely
different spatial and temporal scale in the corresponding sections of the hydrological cycle.
One of the most commonly used approach to circumvent some of these computational
burdens and to cut down the problem into pieces is known under as downscaling which
consists in extrapolating coarse-grid predictions from Global Climate Models (GCMs) to a
finer scale required for the hydro-climatic assessment surface- and/or groundwater models.
There is still an active debate to the pro and cons of the various downscaling methods in use.
1. WATER RESOURCES IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The blue planet Earth appears to have plenty of water. However, only a tiny fraction is
potentially available for human use. In fact, fresh water accounts only for about 3.5% of the
total water resources in the world. Of this 3.5%, about 50% is locked up in the polar ice caps
- and also not directly available -. Of the other 50%, the large bulk (46%) is stored as
groundwater and only 3% resides on the earths surface in lakes and rivers. As the former is
often neither accessible nor cost- effective to recover, this leaves only the named small
portion of surface water for direct human use. The global water situation becomes even more
awkward if one keeps in mind that surface- and groundwater both being part of the
hydrological cycle - is constantly renewed by input from atmospheric water, i.e. net
precipitation. This means that for a long-term sustainable exploitation of water resources
where water withdrawal does not exceed the rate of net atmospheric recharge (Alley et al.,
1999) - only the effective amount of water shuffled through the atmosphere - about 1/10 of
the total surface water resources above with a residence time of about two weeks - is
eventually available for supporting biological life on earth.
Although the above statements and facts may already picture a globally precarious water
situation in general, there is more reason for concern on the regional or local scale in many
parts of the world where natural or human-induced detrimental impacts on water resources
availability and quality are continuously posing a threat to the overall environment,
ecosystems and, not to the least, to the development of local economies. While it is fair to say
that most of these pressures on the environment and water resources, in particular, are due to
the tremendous increase in population on the earth in recent decades - often in regions and
countries where water has always been scarce per se - the situation is being exacerbated since
the middle of the last century by adverse changes of the global and local climate, with
corresponding alterations in the hydrological cycle.
Whether these climate changes are a reflection of what is called man-made Global Warming
or Global Change, or just a kink in the natural variability of climate or hydrological
systems over the geological time scale, that are known to act over a wide range of temporal
scales (cf. Markovic and Koch, 2007; Koch and Markovic, 2008) is another story. The Fourth
Assessment Report (AR4) of the IPCC (2007), the most comprehensive and up-to-date
scientific assessment of this issue, states with very high confidence that human activities,
such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation, have already altered the global climate in an
irrevocable way. During the 20th
century alone, the global average surface temperature rose by
about 0.6C and global precipitation over land increased by 2%. As for the 21st century, the
IPCC AR4 projects that the global average temperature will rise another 2 to 5C by 2100,
depending on the assumed increases of the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases
(as specified in the IPCC SRES-scenarios reports). This temperature increase will eventually
result in continued rises of sea levels and overall rainfall, changes in rainfall patterns and
timing, decline in snow cover, and land and sea ice extent. Thus, the Earth may experience a
faster rate of climate change in the 21st century than seen over the last 10,000 years.
It is now commonly accepted that climate change via its effect on the hydrological cycle-
will have huge impacts on the spatial and temporal distribution of the available water
resources within the surface and subsurface compartments of the hydrosphere. These impacts
can go either way, i.e. may lead to transient increases (flooding) but, more often, decreases of
water resources, entailing reduced groundwater recharge and storage, land subsidence, the
diminishment of base flow in rivers and streams and seawater intrusion in coastal regions
(Arlai and Koch, 2006) (Fig. 1). Consequently, numerous efforts are presently being made by
governments and water authorities in many countries of the world to develop water resources
planning-strategies for mitigation and adaptation to that threat. This, in the view that many
large-scale water resource projects, such as reservoirs, distribution systems, groundwater
recharge facilities and desalinization systems can take many years to plan and to construct.
Shifting the location of and adapting agricultural activities may also require large lead times.
Fig. 1: Illustration of some effects of climate change on surface- and groundwater resources
As mentioned above, water for human, industrial or agricultural use is tapped either from
surface- water- (rivers, lakes, or man-made reservoirs) or from groundwater storage systems,
whereby the proportions may vary significantly from country to country or even for different
watershed basins. In fact, as the construction of new surface water reservoirs and damns is
getting more and more hampered by land-use restrictions and other ecological concerns,
groundwater aquifers commonly offer the only available source for new water development
projects. As a consequence, large regions of the world are starting to become heavily
dependent upon groundwater for domestic water and agricultural irrigation - such as in
Thailand where conjunctive use patterns are being investigated as a viable alternative for rice
cultivation (Bejranonda et al., 2006; 2007) - and there is an urgent need to investigate the
possible impacts of possible climate change and modified climate variability on these
groundwater resources und to make sure that they can be sustained in the long run under
climatically averse conditions. From a regional or continental perspective, our understanding
of climate variability and change impacts on groundwater resources - related to availability,
vulnerability and sustainability of freshwater - remains still limited (Alley et al., 1999).
However, whereas numerous studies and projects in recent years have been devoted to the
investigation of possible detrimental effects of climate change on surface water resources in
many regions of the world (e.g. GLOWA in Germany, PRUDENCE in Europe), there is still
a dearth of investigations devoted to groundwater systems (Loaiciga et al., 2000; Loaiciga,
2003; Allen et al., 2004). In fact, surficial aquifers which supply much of the flow to streams,
lakes, wetlands, and springs are the part of the groundwater system most sensitive to climate
change; yet, limited attenti