Articles | Volume 19, issue 12
Research article
07 Dec 2015
Research article |  | 07 Dec 2015

South Asia river-flow projections and their implications for water resources

C. Mathison, A. J. Wiltshire, P. Falloon, and A. J. Challinor

Abstract. South Asia is a region with a large and rising population, a high dependence on water intense industries, such as agriculture and a highly variable climate. In recent years, fears over the changing Asian summer monsoon (ASM) and rapidly retreating glaciers together with increasing demands for water resources have caused concern over the reliability of water resources and the potential impact on intensely irrigated crops in this region. Despite these concerns, there is a lack of climate simulations with a high enough resolution to capture the complex orography, and water resource analysis is limited by a lack of observations of the water cycle for the region. In this paper we present the first 25 km resolution regional climate projections of river flow for the South Asia region. Two global climate models (GCMs), which represent the ASM reasonably well are downscaled (1960–2100) using a regional climate model (RCM). In the absence of robust observations, ERA-Interim reanalysis is also downscaled providing a constrained estimate of the water balance for the region for comparison against the GCMs (1990–2006). The RCM river flow is routed using a river-routing model to allow analysis of present-day and future river flows through comparison with available river gauge observations. We examine how useful these simulations are for understanding potential changes in water resources for the South Asia region. In general the downscaled GCMs capture the seasonality of the river flows but overestimate the maximum river flows compared to the observations probably due to a positive rainfall bias and a lack of abstraction in the model. The simulations suggest an increasing trend in annual mean river flows for some of the river gauges in this analysis, in some cases almost doubling by the end of the century. The future maximum river-flow rates still occur during the ASM period, with a magnitude in some cases, greater than the present-day natural variability. Increases in river flow could mean additional water resources for irrigation, the largest usage of water in this region, but has implications in terms of inundation risk. These projected increases could be more than countered by changes in demand due to depleted groundwater, increases in domestic use or expansion of water intense industries. Including missing hydrological processes in the model would make these projections more robust but could also change the sign of the projections.

Short summary
South Asia is a highly variable region where there is concern over water and food security. The simulations presented suggest an increasing trend in water resources, in some cases almost doubling by the end of the century although this is masked by the large annual variability of river flows for this region. Future peak river flows still occur during the monsoon period, with a tendency for reduced frequency of lowest flows and increased magnitude of highest flows across the selected locations.