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03 August 2011

Martin Beniston: “We need to improve the management of water resources to avoid potential conflicts in the future”

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According to the current climate models, modifications in the amount and duration of snow cover, the magnitude and timing of the summer ice-melt peak, the headwater extension of streams as they follow glacier recession, decreasing groundwater recharge and elevated water temperature are expected to modify noticeably mountainous ecosystems 

ACQWA (Assessing Climate Impacts on the Quantity and quality of WAter) is an ongoing large-scale integrating project with 35 partners, funded under the EU seventh Framework Programme, which began in 2008 and is expected to be concluded by 2013. Its goal is to use advanced modeling techniques to quantify the influence of climate change on the major determinants of river discharge at various time and spatial scales, and to analyze the resulting societal and economic consequences, taking account of feedback mechanisms.
ACQWA is focused on continuous transient scenarios from the 1960s up to 2050 primarily on the upper Rhone (France) and Po (Italy) catchments, with additional research being conducted on the Aconcagua (Chile), and Syr Darya (Kyrgyzstan) rivers, in Argentina and the Pyrenees, all regions where snow and ice melt represent a large, sometimes the largest, stream flow component. Only the Alps glaciers provide 40 percent of Europe’s freshwater. Since the 1960 they retreated by about between 10 and 30 percent.

Martin Beniston, Chair for Climate Research and Director of the new Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, is both ACQWA’s initiator and co-ordinator.

What do you do exactly to assess climate impacts on the quantity and quality of water in these regions?
The first thing is to put together people from different backgrounds with expertise in various aspects related to climate change and water resources, from people working in glaciology to the biology field, who bring what we call modelling expertise, that is simulation of different process to see how the changes in snow and ice, in vegetation, in geology related to climate change would affect hydrological resources. Once we have the estimates of these changes within the next fifty to one hundred years we can also try and estimate what could be some of the economic impacts for different sectors like agriculture, tourism or the hydropower sector, which is the part of the project we are working on now and formulate some strategies for adaptation and for the improvement of water policy and water governance above and within the EU and within countries that are not part of it , like Switzerland.

How do you do it?
We use different observations to test the quality of the models and if they passed then we can do the simulations for the future. We need of course to input data from the IPCC scenarios, of the greenhouse gas emissions and similar. There was a lot of data that was generated in previous EU Projects like the FP6 Ensembles Project, probably one of the biggest European project dedicated to climate over the last five years, which generated all the data that we ourselves are using. The innovation is really the linking together of different models that until now have been studied separately from each other. Previous studies have given us some intuitive reasoning while this one is going to give us better predictions with better numbers for the hydrology, the snow and ice, the climate and so on. Intuitively you can easily say that if there is less snow sky tourism will be difficult, what we can do now with a project like this is to actually quantify the economic costs of less snow for the ski industry in the Alps for instance, which is what the economic sectors need.

You are assessing both the quantity and the quality of the water, right?
Compared to the initial submission the quality part is maybe less ambitious than it should have been simply because we did not get necessarily all the funding and when we negotiated with the Commission final budget and final objectives we had to make a choice, so now we have very few partners looking at the water quality.

Is water quality a less relevant issue in the mountains?
Our experience in the Alps and the information we have of other studies looking at water quality in Europe seem to suggest that there might be in some very localized areas possible problems of increased pathogens for instance, but this would still not be a major problem of public health. This is not necessarily the case in some of the other parts where we have partners such as Central Asia or the central Andes in Chile where water quality could be a bigger issue than here in the Alps.
Anyway if you have enough water even in a future climate then you can probably resolve any questions of water quality with different means but if you don’t have water at all, then you are in big trouble. That’s why the quantity rather than the quality is of primary importance.

Why have you chosen these regions?
We chose mountain regions that are still dominated by snow and ice compared to Mediterranean mountains where there is very little and the rivers regimes are already different from what we have here in the northern part of the Alps to show that some dramatic changes would have strong influence on water resources not only in the mountains themselves but also downstream. The Rhone and Rhine rivers for instance would be heavily impacted upon by the fact that in the next fifty or one hundred years there will be very few glaciers left to feed these rivers at least in the summertime.

What role does groundwater play in these regions?
If you have less water the tendency is to get it in the groundwater but if you pump out too much water from the ground then you don’t let the natural system recharge and it takes a lot of time and rain to fill it up again. We seem to be seeing an increase in the frequency of drought and heat waves which is depleting probably groundwater more quickly than rain fall is replenishing it. It is as if you are spending more money than you are earning, so you have to also think about how groundwater would be recharged in a climate where the temperatures will be warmer, there will be more evaporation from the soils and there will be less water to supply the soils. Groundwater is the sort of backup that we might need basically because at least in the Alps surface water has been sufficient until now but this is expected to change and we have to see what to do in this case.

Has the water level of the rivers in the regions you are studying decreased considerably from the ‘60s?
Here in the Alps if you take it over the whole period the quantities of water are not that different but if you look at certain specific years when we have had heat and drought, then you do see changes in the way the rivers behave. In 2003, which was the hottest summer ever in this part of the world, what happened was that the snow and the ice were melting more rapidly than usual and so there was enough water in the rivers but the problem is that if we get the same kind of heat waves once the glaciers are no longer in existence, the rivers will tend to run basically dry in the summertime.

What other element have changed its composition significantly in the same time period?
There are increases in population in some of the more economically active parts of the Alps, such as in the Cantonese valley where there is quite a lot of small and medium industry, the hydropower sector or tourism that attract people. This means there are more people who need more water, while in the future there is likely to be less water for more people, so you see the kind of problem that you have to think about.

What is emerging from your preliminary results?
We can probably identify potential rivalries or conflicts of interests among economic sectors like agriculture and tourism that for the moment have enough water to conduct their business but in the future this might not be available at the right time of the year for snow making or for the hydropower sector for instance. So the recommendations that we are going to try to formulate are how to improve the management of water resources in order to avoid some potential conflicts in the future.

What role might dams have in the adaptation policies?
They could play a very important role by holding back water that could be used by maybe the agricultural sector when it needs it. This means that you need to link the different sectors so that instead of being competitive they would be acting in a more collaborative mode but whether this is going to happen is difficult to say because sectors such as agriculture, hydropower and tourism tend to be very independent from one another.

What conflicts on water are taking place in the regions you study?
What is going on in Chile, which is one of the reasons why we have a Chilean partner, is maybe an indication of what we should expect within the next thirty or forty years. They are already experiencing water shortages and there is one major sector dominating over the others, the mining for copper and precious metals, which is basically the one who decides who can get the water. We might want to avoid this in the Alps. If you have a better water governance you can allocate water to whoever needs it when they need it rather than get to a situation similar to the Chilean one.

Is your project welcome at local level, ignored or criticized?
If it was in the Nineties I would say people would be very skeptical of what we are doing but in the last fifteen years they have seen quite a few changes and the 2003 heat for instance was a good example of what might happen. Here in the Alps I think people are willing to think about ways of acting to avoid negative impacts. In this sense we are more fortunate to have this project running now than if we had fifteen years ago.

Is there anything relevant that I have not asked you and you would like to say?
Not on the project itself but I would like to say that although we are working quite nicely with the Science Office at the Commission we often have the impression as scientists that much of the work we do and that is supposedly funded to help guide the European climate, environment or water policies, once the project is over does not have any follow-up at least from the Commission side. I think in Framework projects 7 they seem to have picked up on this a little and that they realize they are putting a lot of money and not doing much with the results. I think that if the message can be brought across increasingly people might understand that there is added value from actually looking at what the projects are recommending in terms of actions. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.