Martin BenistonThis question is preoccupying Professor Martin Beniston. For the former vice-chairman of the IPCC, the reality of climate change was settled years ago. Now, Beniston, Director of The Institute of Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, thinks that creating good policies to soften the blow is about the best we can do. “The inertia of climate is such that we will not be able to reverse current trends overnight, so we must think about how to adapt to them,” he says. To do that, Martin Beniston initiated and is coordinating the five-year ACQWA (Assessing Climate impacts on the Quantity and quality of Water) project to assess and predict changes in water resources in vulnerable mountain regions in the Alps, the Andes and the Himalayas. Thirty-five research partners around the world are contributing to the 6.5 million euros EU project.

“Chile and Argentina are experiencing problems that Switzerland might encounter within the next 50 years or so,” explains Beniston. “Chile is now experiencing the almost total disappearance of its glaciers and that is already posing serious problems for agriculture and other sectors such as hydropower or the mining sector.”

The ACQWA team in Kyrgyzstan is collecting data about the glaciers of Central Asia. “Glaciers in that part of the world are receding but they are so big out there that Kyrgyzstan can still use the coming decades to develop, for example, hydropower. Switzerland is in between these two extremes–the almost preoccupying situation in the Andes and the still fairly reasonable situation in Central Asia.”

Glaciers, Professor Beniston explains, are an irreplaceable part of hydrological systems. “Mountains will continue to intercept quite a bit of rainfall, but snow and ice are major suppliers of water, so when the glaciers almost disappear, things will be difficult. Our climate models suggest that we will see seasonal shifts in precipitation patterns. If we have much less water falling out of the skies in summer and the glaciers are no longer there to feed into rivers, some of the alpine rivers are going to run dry.”

ACQWA is also assessing the impact on important economic sectors like tourism, agriculture and hydropower sectors. If shortfalls occur, he says, such sectors would be in direct competition, as is already happening in Chile. Even more serious are the potential conflicts that competition for water could generate. “The idea beyond researching the physical aspects of the glaciers is to suggest possible ways to improve current water governance and policies to alleviate some of these problems before they occur,” he says.

But Martin Beniston is also realistic about the reallife policy decisions that will be based on the data his team provides. “Long-term forward planning is not really in human mentality. Some theories say that we are ‘“genetically programmed’” to look after ourselves and our children’s generation, but that we can’t think much further. When a long-term problem arises, like climate change, humans have to reach certain thresholds before we take decisions.”

What would such a threshold look like? “Unfortunately, long-term changes in mean climate are almost imperceptible because you have to look at the data to see that change is occurring, or you have to go regularly to the mountains to see that the glaciers are receding,” he says. “What really opens people’s eyes are events like the 2003 heat-wave in Europe or the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans or the fires across Russia this summer. I expect we will have to see a lot more of that kind of thing before politicians act.”

By Sarah Meyer de Stadelhofen