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Anthropogenic Disturbance of the Terrestrial Water Cycle

Anthropogenic Disturbance of the Terrestrial Water Cycle

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Published by: Carlos Sánchez López on Mar 28, 2012
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he terrestrial water cycle plays a central role in theclimate,ecology,and biogeochemistry ofthe planet.Mounting historical evidence for the influence of greenhouse warming on recent climate,and modelingprojections into the future,highlight changes to the land-based water cycle as a major global change issue (Houghtonet al.1995,Watson et al.1996,SGCR 1999).Disturbance of the hydrologic cycle has received significant attention withrespect to land–atmosphere exchanges,plant physiology,net primary production,and the cycling ofmajor nutrients(Foley et al.1996,Sellers et al.1996,McGuire et al.1997).Changes in land use are also recognized as critical factorsgoverning the future availability offresh water (Chase et al.2000).Another important but seldom articulated globalchange issue is direct alteration ofthe continental watercycle for irrigation,hydroelectricity,and other humanneeds.Although the scope and magnitude ofwater engi-neering today are colossal in comparison with preindus-trial times,most ofthe very same activities—irrigation,navigation enhancement,reservoir creation—can betraced back several thousand years in the Middle East andChina.Stabilization ofwater supply has remained a fun-damental preoccupation ofhuman society and is a key security concern for most nations.Reducing flood hazard,enhancing food security,and redirecting runofffromwater-rich to water-poor areas continue to provide amajor challenge to our engineering infrastructure.In this article we address three issues.First,we docu-ment the nature and magnitude ofdirect human alter-ation ofthe terrestrial water cycle,specifically throughconstruction ofengineering works for water resourcemanagement.We focus on the redistribution offreshwateramong major storage pools and the correspondingchanges to continental runoff.Second,we explore some of the impacts ofthis disturbance on drainage basins,riversystems,and land-to-ocean linkages.Finally,we review keuncertainties regarding our current understanding of human–water interactions at the global scale and makesuggestions on potentially useful avenues for futureresearch.
 Evidence for global-scale humanimpacts on the terrestrial water cycle 
Although an exact inventory ofglobal water withdrawalhas been difficult to assemble,the general features of anthropogenic water use are more or less known.Reviewsofthe recent literature (Shiklomanov 1996,Gleick 2000)show a range in estimated global water withdrawals for the year 2000 between approximately 4000 and 5000 km
/yr.Despite reductions in the annual rate ofincrease in with-drawals from 1970 (Shiklomanov 1996,2000,Gleick1998a),global water use has grown more or less exponen-tially with human population and economic developmentover the industrial era.By one account (L’vovich andWhite 1990),there was a 15-fold increase in aggregate
September 2000 / Vol.50 No.9
Charles Vörösmarty (e-mail: charles.vorosmarty@unh.edu) and Dork Sahagian (e-mail: gaim@unh.edu) are research associate professorsat the Institute for the Study of Earth,Oceans,and Space and at theEarth Sciences Department,University of New Hampshire,Durham,NH 03824. Vörösmarty is affiliated with the Institute’s Complex Systems Research Center and serves as director of the newly formed Water Systems Analysis Group. He is on the ScientificSteering Committee of the International Geosphere–BiosphereProgram Core Project on the Biospheric Aspects of the HydrologicCycle (BAHC) and is active in the International Association of Hydrological Sciences. Sahagian is in the Climate Change ResearchCenter and is executive director of the IGBP Global Analysis,Integration,and Modeling (GAIM) Task Force. © 2000 AmericanInstitute of Biological Sciences.
 AnthropogenicDisturbance of theTerrestrial Water Cycle
water use between 1800 and 1980,when the global popu-lation increased by a factor offour (Haub 1994).Aggregateirretrievable water losses (consumption),driven mainly by evaporation from irrigated land,increased 13-fold duringthis period.Global consumption for 1995 has been esti-mated at approximately 2300 km
/yr,or 60% oftotal waterwithdrawal (Shiklomanov 1996).To place such water use into perspective,it is necessary to consider the global supply ofrenewable water.Usingrecent estimates oflong-term average runofffrom thecontinents totaling approximately 40,000 km
/yr (Feketeet al.1999,Shiklomanov 2000) and an estimated with-drawal of4000–5000 km
/yr,humans exploit from 10% to15% ofcurrent water supply.It therefore might appearthat water withdrawal over the entire globe is but a smallfraction ofcontinental runoffand that water poses nomajor limitation to human development.However,ofthe31% ofglobal runoffthat is spatially and temporally accessible to society,more than halfis withdrawn (35%)or maintained for instream uses (19%;Postel et al.1996).And,by the early 1990s,several arid zone countriesshowed relative use rates much larger than the global aver-age (e.g.,Azerbaijan,Egypt,and Libya,which were already using 55%,110%,and 770% oftheir respective sustainablewater supplies;WRI 1998).Contemporary society is thushighly dependent on,and in many places limited by,theterrestrial water cycle defined by contemporary climate.This dependency is likely to intensify as a consequence of population growth and economic development.From1950 to 1998,water availability had already decreased from16,000 to 6700 m
/yr per capita (WRI 1998,Fekete et al.1999).Ifwe assume no appreciable change in global runoff over the next several decades,a projected increase in glob-al population by 2025 to approximately 8 billion people(WRI 1998) means that per capita supplies will continue todecline to approximately 5000 m
/yr (WRI 1998).Tabulat-ing these statistics from the standpoint ofaccessible water,per capita availability would be reduced to approximately 1500 m
/yr.Given an estimate ofmean global water use of 625 m
/yr per capita for 2025 (Shiklomanov 1996,1997),withdrawals could therefore exceed 40% ofthe accessibleglobal water resource even with presumed increases in useefficiency.This has obvious implications for human society and natural ecosystems,both ofwhich are highly depen-dent on renewable supplies ofwater.The primary application ofwater is to irrigate croplandin the many regions ofthe world where rain-fed agricul-ture is limited or where specific crops such as paddy ricetypically are inundated during growth.Irrigation pro-duces more than 40% ofglobal food and agriculturalcommodity output (Shiklomanov 1996,1997,UN 1997)on but 15–20% ofall agricultural land worldwide.Recent-ly,the extent ofirrigated land is placed at approximately 2.5 million km
,with a more than 50% rise between 1970and 1995 (Gleick 1998a).For 1990,estimates ofglobalirrigation withdrawals range from approximately 2300 to2700 km
/yr or approximately 60–75% ofall water with-drawals (Shiklomanov 1996,1997).By some accounts(L’vovich and White 1990,Shiklomanov 1996,1997),irre-trievable losses ofwater total 60–70% ofall water with-drawn for all purposes,and irrigation alone accounts for85–90% ofthis consumption.Providing adequate irriga-tion water to a growing population constitutes a major
September 2000 / Vol.50 No.9
Figure 1.Global time series of(a) accumulated potentiavolume storage,(b) intercepted continental runoff,and (c) mean age ofimpounded river discharge calculated locally at reservoirs.We present here results for a subset ofapproximately 600 large reservoirs.At its endpoint,the maximum storage time series likely representsapproximately 60% ofthe global storage offresh water behind registered dams.(Data from Tilsley 1983,ICOLD1984,1988,USBR 1988,IWPDC 1989,1994,Vörösmartet al.1997a.)
September 2000 / Vol.50 No.9
international security concern well into the future (UN1997).
 Major classes ofwater engineering 
The expansion ofglobal water use requires the stabiliza-tion ofcontinental runoffand diversion ofwater from onepart ofthe hydrologic cycle to another.These changes canbe translated into particular storage changes as well asreductions or increases in natural hydrological fluxes.Weprovide here a synopsis ofthe major agents ofanthro-pogenic change and their potential impacts on the terres-trial water system.
 Aquifer mining.
In most arid and semi-arid regions,where surface water is insufficient,mined fossil ground-water is the main water resource for irrigation and otheruses.Natural rates ofwater recharge to the aquifer are very low.Therefore,when water is extracted from such ground-water pools,and in particular when it is used for irriga-tion,most will be translocated from the aquifer to theatmosphere.This transfer represents both a depletion of continental storage and at least a temporary increase inatmospheric water vapor through the enhanced evapora-tive flux.
Surface water diversion and changes in internal-ly draining lake volumes.
Diversion ofsurface watersfor irrigation in the internally draining basins ofarid andother regions results in increased evaporation and a netloss ofcontinental water.The shrinking Aral and CaspianSeas are striking examples ofthis effect,whereas LakeChad has acted in the opposite direction but with muchsmaller magnitude.As in the case ofaquifer mining,netloss ofwater from such lakes leads to a net decrease in con-
Table 1.
Various anthropogenic mechanisms for altering continental water storage.
Total volume Sea level Twentieth century Sea levelStorage removable equivalent extraction rate rise rateHuman activity reservoir (
) (cm) (km
 /yr) (mm/yr)
Aquifer miningHigh Plains41.1120.03Southwest US30.83100.03California 102.7130.04Sahara600167100.03Arabia500140160.04Surface water Aral (lake)diversion and 19601.10.3270.08 volume19900.30.08changes of Aral (groundwater)2.20.6370.1inland lakesCaspian (lake)5615.47.70.02Caspian (groundwater)22061.24.70.01Chad (lake) (groundwater) (soil water) drainageWaterlogged soils8.62.420.006Soil erosion in agricultureSoil moistureNA
NA80.02DeforestationBiomass and soil water3.30.9490.14Dam buildingArtificial Impoundments8.42.41720.48 Total (without dams)1408.5392.5193.80.54 Total (with dams)1401.1390.121.80.06
Table modified from Sahagian et al.(1994).
Total volume removable is the amount ofwater that can potentially be economically withdrawn from each storage type with current technology.The vastmajority ofthis total is represented by groundwater.Methods ofvolume estimation vary from one storage type to another,so these figures should be con-sidered as rough approximations.
Sea level equivalent is the level that eustatic sea level would rise ifthe total volume removable were added to the oceans,which have an area of3.6
Twentieth century extraction rates are derived from various publications.Note that in some cases extraction rate is negative (increase in reservoir storage).
Sea level rise rate is based on the extraction rate spread over the entire area ofthe world’s oceans.
NA,Not available.

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