Events & News


Impacts of Climate Change on the Water Budget: Emerging Results from the European ‘Assessing Climate Impacts on the Quantity and Quality of Water’ (ACQWA)

Professor Martin Beniston, Director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences (ISE), University of Geneva, Switzerland

04 Jul 2011

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Only about 3 per cent of water on earth is fresh water, and most of it is frozen in glaciers. Professor Beniston, as the coordinator for the ‘Assessing Climate Impacts on the Quantity and Quality of Water’ (ACQWA) project within the European Union’s 7th R&D Framework Programme FP7 (link) presented his team’s findings on changes that have occurred to the Swiss Alps as a result of climate change, and the impact this will have on water resource management and other key economic sectors affecting the EU, since some of western Europe’s major rivers have their sources in the Swiss Alps. The results of this project will also contribute to providing updated information and policy recommendations for the European Framework Directive on Water (link).

He highlighted that major economic sectors in this region, such as agriculture, energy and tourism depend on water, or can be severely constrained by the supply of water. Changes observed could impact the ways in which water is consumed and water resources are managed. The European alpine region is one of the main sources of fresh water for vast regions of Europe, contributing to the water supply for the main rivers that run through the heart of Europe, the Rhine, Rhone, Po and Danube. Over 200 million people living around the four basins depend on these rivers.  Hence, the joint management of the Alps and the effects of climate change on the region are important considerations.

Prof Beniston’s team observed significant changes in the Alps’ temperature, seasonal precipitation and discharge. He argued that climate change is putting pressure on fresh water stocks and water availability due to changing hydrological patterns. With increasing temperatures contributing to rapidly melting glaciers, they have the potential to lose between 50-90 per cent of their current volume. As the areas of permanent snow cover keep on moving higher, some snow-covered mountains may become a thing of the past in the not too distant future. Citing IPCC models, Beniston pointed out that by 2100, summer temperatures in Switzerland could rise between 3-5˚, and winter temperatures 6-7˚, significantly altering precipitation patterns and times of snow melt. While there is also a diversity of uses for the runoff, he cautioned that there will be more fluctuations in temperatures and an increased risk of extreme weather.

Much that has been observed in Prof Beniston’s research has resonance for the Asian region, where melt water from Himalayan region feeds into Asia’s major rivers. The effects of climate change on this region have the potential to affect far larger numbers of people (estimated to be around 2.5 billion) due to the higher population density in this region, and because of the large catchment area. Changes in hydrological patterns can already be seen, in monsoon intensity and frequency, and the amount of snow and ice cover across the various seasons. The Asian brown cloud and El Niño patterns are already causing disruptions to daily life in the region, highlighting once again the need for joint solutions and political leadership to avert a coming ecological crisis. Emphasis has to be put on issues of water governance, and to coming up with various mitigation policies to cope with the foreseeable changes.