Articles | Volume 21, issue 6
Research article
09 Jun 2017
Research article |  | 09 Jun 2017

Hydrological threats to riparian wetlands of international importance – a global quantitative and qualitative analysis

Christof Schneider, Martina Flörke, Lucia De Stefano, and Jacob D. Petersen-Perlman

Abstract. Riparian wetlands have been disappearing at an accelerating rate. Their ecological integrity as well as their vital ecosystem services for humankind depend on regular patterns of inundation and drying provided by natural flow regimes. However, river hydrology has been altered worldwide. Dams cause less variable flow regimes and water abstractions decrease the amount of flow so that ecologically important flood pulses are often reduced. Given growing population pressure and projected climate change, immediate action is required. However, the implementation of counteractive measures is often a complex task. This study develops a screening tool for assessing hydrological threats to riparian wetlands on global scales. The approach is exemplified on 93 Ramsar sites, many of which are located in transboundary basins. First, the WaterGAP3 hydrological modeling framework is used to quantitatively compare current and future modified flow regimes to reference flow conditions. In our simulations current water resource management seriously impairs riparian wetland inundation at 29 % of the analyzed sites. A further 8 % experience significantly reduced flood pulses. In the future, eastern Europe, western Asia, as well as central South America could be hotspots of further flow modifications due to climate change. Second, a qualitative analysis of the 93 sites determined potential impact on overbank flows resulting from planned or proposed dam construction projects. They take place in one-third of the upstream areas and are likely to impair especially wetlands located in South America, Asia, and the Balkan Peninsula. Third, based on the existing legal/institutional framework and water resource availability upstream, further qualitative analysis evaluated the capacity to preserve overbank flows given future streamflow changes due to dam construction and climate change. Results indicate hotspots of vulnerability exist, especially in northern Africa and the Persian Gulf.

Short summary
Riparian wetlands are disappearing worldwide due to altered river flow regimes. The WaterGAP3 modeling framework is used to compare modified to natural flow regimes at 93 Ramsar sites. Results indicate that water resource management seriously impairs inundation patterns at 29 % of the sites. New dam initiatives are likely to affect especially wetlands located in South America, Asia, and the Balkan Peninsula. Hotspots for climate change impacts could be eastern Europe and South America.