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Economic Impact of Climate Change on Water Resources

3720 words (15 pages) Dissertation

13th Dec 2019 Dissertation Reference this

Tags: EconomicsEnvironmental Studies

Economic Impacts of Climate Change in the Mountain Regions: Water as a source of peace and economic development


When we think of the mountains we usually think of the mountains themselves and not the impact they make on the area below them. The purpose of this research is to review impacts of climate change at a global scale on the mountains and the mountains’ water supply. This paper also reviews major environmental/ecological, social, and economic issues facing us. Tourism industry will suffer because of it.

The study concludes that climate change will bring in instability on global scale with possible water conflicts and decreasing economic developments especially in developing countries. This will bring increased people migration into the areas not much effected by water supply issues and will increase social and political instability in those areas.

Keywords:relative water yield (RWY), “water towers”, “river piracy”


It is estimated that out of 7.382 billion people in the world today (U.S. Census, 2017), about 11% of the world’s population live in the mountain regions (Kohler et al, 2014). The mountains provide water for billions of people. The mountains are “water towers” of the world. They cover 25% of the world’s land surface and more than 50% the world’s population depends on water that originates in the mountains (Viviroli et all, 2006).

By comparison in 2015 we used less than 1% of fresh water. That water is made in more than 18,000 desalination plants. The water desalination production increased by 67% from 2008 (Thomas Sumner et all, 2016). The water from mountains is used for drinking, domestic use, irrigation, hydropower, transportation, tourism purposes and many other industries. Climate change in the mountains is bringing in an unpredictable winters. Winters with minimal snow or snow coverage which lasts for only a short time are the winters of today (J. Dawson et all, 2009).

Climate change in the mountains will bring increased hazards and casualties, such as: fires, floods, avalanches, landslides, desertification, and mountain erosion. It will change the rainfall and monsoon patterns which will bring devastation and economic uncertainty to many regions. Climate change will increase people’s migration and will bring diseases not known in the area. The possibility of conflicts and even war might also increase.

Water as a source of peace and economic development

Mountains as water source around the world

Climate change might have devastated outcome especially for semi-arid and arid areas which will be affected by less water coming from the mountains. The mountains help to distribute up 95% of water to these areas. In humid areas mountains’ distribution of water is up to 60%. (Swiss Agency et all, 1998). Figure 1 below shows mountain water run off around the world.

Figure 1: Disproportionality of mountain runoff formation relative to average lowland runoff (RWY), mapped cell by cell for mountainous areas. Disproportionality in favor of runoff is given when RWY is greater than 1, its importance being marked for RWY > 2 and essential for RWY > 5 (Viviroli et al, 2007).

As can be seen in Figure 1, the most important water mountain sources are regions in the Middle East, South and central Africa, Asia, Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and the Andes.

In the Figure 1, we can see that relative water runoff is very important for the lower areas in the areas of where RWY is higher than 1<. It is very important where RWY is higher than 2< (2light red). The water runoff is essential where RWY is higher than 5< (2 dark reds).

Himalayan Maintains alone supply water to over 2 billion people in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia (VOA, 2015).

Mountains in Africa are as important as Himalayan Mountains in Asia in that they provide the water source for farming for millions of people and include many African ecosystems such as: forests, grasslands, drylands, rivers and wetlands. Without these mountains Africa would not be Africa we know (Mountain Partnership et all).

The Nile River is very important water source in Northern Africa. Its waters is the primary water source of Egypt and Sudan. It is the longest river in the world. The Rwenzori Mountains and the Ethiopian Highlands are the most permanent source of the tributaries of River Nile (Unesco, 2017). About 250 million people in 11 countries depend on the waters from the Nile (Salman et all, 2016). Former UN Secretary General said once that, “The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not over politics…”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former foreign minister of Egypt and former UN Secretary General. (Quoted in: International Fresh Water Resources, 1997)

Figure 2: The map shows all the land areas which are connected and supply water by mountains in Africa (Mountain Partnership et all).

Outcomes and evaluation of disappearing mountains’ sourced water 

About 5,500 glaciers in the Himalayan region could disappear or reduce their water content volume by 70%-99% by 2100. That would be devastating for the people using the water resources in the area (J. M. Shea et al, 2015).

The study done by Dr Joseph Shea estimates changes in ice volume in Himalayan Mountains based on two emissions scenarios. These two emission scenarios are approved by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). RCP 4.5, shows emissions stabilized by 2050s, and RCP 8.5, is the scenario where the highest emissions adapted by IPCC are used. In the Figure 2 blue lines (RCP 4.5) and red lines (RCP 8.5).

Using the highest emission scenario shows us decrease in ice volume by almost 100%. The model in Figure 3 shows possible complete melt down of all glaciers by 2100. This scenario might be duplicated in other mountain regions with devastated results for farming and other industries which need water or snow to survive.

Figure 3: Projected loss of glacier volume through the 21st century for RCP4.5 (blue lines) and RCP8.5 (red lines) emissions scenarios. Thin lines show individual model results and bold lines show average across all models. Source: Shea et al. (2015).

In Tibet people can already see big changes. One Tibetan coming back after 30 years to Lhasa said, “When I lived in Lhasa, it was very rare that people could walk outside in T-shirts,” and “Now people are walking in shorts!” (Dorje et all, 2015).

This water source is now supplying water to 2 billion people and by 2050 that might increase to 2.7 billion. A study conducted in 2014 shows that most rivers’ water flow will increase till 2050. This is due to melting glaciers but then the water flow is projected to decrees. It is very important for all the researchers and the governments to work on water policies to make sure that there will be enough water sources for the growing population in the future (Arthur Lutz et all, 2014).

South Asia, especially Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, India and Nepal might get some help from the monsoons. Studies done on subject show multiple scenarios. Some studies predict that climate change might alter the direction of the monsoons. The rain might fall over the sea. Some show that the monsoons will increase the amount of rain and start unimaginable floods. Other studies predict less rain. Whatever it will be, things will change for the local population for the worse.

In South America climate change is changing Andes mountains environment. Mountain ecosystems there, known as “páramos” help to provide clean water and protect the lowland against flooding. These systems are located at 11,000 feet or more above sea level. These ecosystem have plants called espletia. These plants can hold a lot of water, several times their weight (Autumn Spanne et all, 2012). The climate change increased the temperature and the moisture in the mountains and now ecosystem can’t handle it anymore. On March 31, 2017, flooding and mudslides from the mountains killed 254 people in the city of Mocoa. City of Mocoa is located at elevation of 2002.08 feet (Jaime Saldarriaga et all, 2017).

Glaciers in the mountain regions

Most of the glaciers are melting. We can see that on the photos in the Figure 4 and Figure 5 (Burkhart, P et all, 2016).

Figure 4: Columbia Glacier, Alaska, has retreated by 6.5 km (4 miles) between 2009 (left) and 2015 (right) (Credit: James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey)
Figure 5: Stein Glacier, Switzerland, has retreated by 550 m (1,800 ft) between 2006 (left) and 2015 (right) (Credit: James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey)

The glaciers; melting not only increase the sea level rise but also millions of people are supplied with water from it. These photos show clearly how things can quickly change (Burkhart, P et all, 2016). The loss of glaciers is not only loss of water source but it is a loss of environmental archives. Scientists use glacier’s to study snow which has accumulated into layers in the glacier (Burkhart, P et all, 2016).

The first “river piracy” case was in 2016. River piracy is when river changes the course. It is diverted from one river bed to another. The study in 2016 shows that river has change its course from northward to southward (Shugar. D et all, 2016). Figure 6 shows that change. It is because of melting and retreating glacier.

Figure 6: Guardian graphic | Source: Nature Geoscience

Tourism – Ecotourism

U.S. tourism brings $12.2 billion during winter. It also employs 211,900 people during the winter season. National Ski Areas Association stated that in 2009-10 ski season, 88 % of resorts had to use artificial snow to stay open (Burakowski et all, 2012).

It is very expensive to make snow. East coast ski areas spend anywhere from $500,000 to over $3.5 million making snow every season. The expense goes up every year (Flynn et all, 2013). A recent study on Northeastern U.S. ski resorts estimated that only 4 out of 14 major ski resorts would remain profitable by 2100. That is only 29 % of the resorts would be open (Burakowski et all, 2012).

Climate change shortens the winter and snow fall in the mountains. Winter starts later in the year and ends sooner (Dawson et all, 2009). The ski areas must come up with the summer activities in order to be able to support the economy of these areas.

Climate change and the hazards in the mountain region

It is estimated that climate change in the mountain will not only disrupt water supply but will also increase natural hazards in and around the mountains. As can be seen in Figure 7, all mountain regions will be affected.

Figure 7: Climate change and the incidents of hazards in the mountain regions

The changes in the mountain areas are seldom thought as an increase in hazards and casualties. But mountain fires, floods, avalanches and landslides will increase. It will change the rainfall and monsoon patterns which will bring devastation and economic uncertainty to many region


There has to be cooperative water agreements between countries. Water quantity and quality needs to be discussed and put into policies of all interested parties. All water issues and water awareness must be spread within a local population with water efficiency included. Environment and environmental issues must be taken into consideration when policies or projects are implemented.

It is accepted as a fact that more fresh water will be needed especially in the regions where the mountains are providing the water. Planning for future water supply for farming and for human use is needed in order to avoid social and political instability in those areas.

Literature Cited

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Burakowski, E and Magnusson, M, Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States, 12/2012, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) http://protectourwinters.org/climate_report/report.pdf

Burkhart P, Alley R, Thompson L, Balog J, Baldauf P, Baker G, Savor the Cryosphere, 12/13/2016, The Geological Society of America, Inc. http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/science/G293A/GSATG293A.pdf

J. Dawson, Climate change analogue analysis of ski tourism in the northeastern USA, 04/28/2009, University of Waterloo http://www.int-res.com/articles/cr2009/39/c039p001.pdf

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Kohler, T., Wehrli, A. & Jurek, M., eds. 2014. Mountains and climate change: A global concern. Sustainable Mountain Development Series. Bern, Switzerland, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Geographica Bernensia. 136 pp. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/mountain_partnership/docs/E_LOW_Fullversion_Mountain_CC.pdf

Kohler T. and Maselli D. (eds) 2009. Mountains and Climate Change – From Understanding to Action. Published by Geographica Bernensia with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and an international team of contributors. Bern. http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i2869e/i2869e00.pdf

A. F. Lutz, “Consistent increase in High Asia’s runoff due to increasing glacier melt and precipitation”, Nature Climate Change, 06/01/2014 http://www.futurewater.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/nclimate2237.pdf

Mountain Partnership, “Mountains as the water towers of the world: A call for action on the sustainable development goals (SDGS)”, http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/SDGs_and_mountains_water_EN.pdf

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