Climate change adaptation in Colombia: a tipping point analysis

Written by Leonardo Alfonso Segura & Emma Meurs, on 23 February 2015

Under the lead of Deltares, IHE Delft and consultancy companies FutureWater and Sarvision collaborated in a project to demonstrate climate change adaptation analysis tools and methods to relevant parties in Colombia. The project was completed in December 2014 and was one of the first executed by a Dutch consortium to look at the consequences of climate change for water management in Colombia. Leonardo Alfonso, Senior Lecturer in Hydroinformatics at IHE Delft and project collaborator shares his experiences.

Responding to government policy

Adaptation for climate change is high on the Colombian agenda at the moment. The government recently launched the Climate Change National Adaptation Plan (PNACC) which addresses the flood and drought risks in the country. Colombia, and especially the Magdelena River, was severely hit by a large flooding in 2010 and 2011. This triggered the Colombian government and water institutions to enforce the attention given to risks associated to natural hazards.

Leonardo Alfonso: "This was an interesting project because the new National Development Plan issued recently by the government contains an important climate adaptation component and we have been connecting to actual priorities of the government to tackle some of these issues. We assessed possible impacts of climate change with respect to drought risks in the Coello-Combeima Basin and to flood-risks in the upper and middle Magdalena River Basin ".

Under what amount of change will policies start failing to achieve objectives and perform unacceptably? This was the central question posed in this demonstration study executed by Dutch institutes together with Colombian governmental partners.

Working on climate change scenarios

More than a full research project, this demonstration project was closer to a systematic analysis of future risks. In particular, risk of flooding in the upper and middle Magdalena river basin and risk of water shortage for the tributary river Coello was analysed. Multiple plausible future projections of climate (based on IPCC fifth assessment), land use and water demand (based on expert workshops and literature) were used to explore extremes in rainfall and discharges, using state of the art downscaling and hydrological modeling tools, and to explore future water shortages using a state of the art water allocation model.

The Dutch consortium not only demonstrated their expertise, but also methods and tools by addressing part of this very complex problem. "This project provides the basis for future detailed studies. Although time and funds were limited, we have found interesting outcomes and drew several recommendations. We hope we can continue to further work on them", says Leonardo Alfonso.

The partners in the Dutch consortium applied their knowledge on how to deal with climate change in water resources management. The collaboration of the local authorities and government institutions including the National Planning Department (DNP), Cormagdalena, the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environment Studies (IDEAM) and Cortolima, was significant and they were all involved from an early stage. Several products were jointly developed, such as climate change scenarios for the Magdalena River as well as socioeconomic scenarios. In addition, current and future flood and land cover maps were produced by Sarvision. The corresponding reports are public and can be downloaded from the project’s website.

Local partners were actively engaged in different events and workshops. Not only did they acquire the specific knowledge they needed, but they also participated in the development of such scenarios. IHE Delft played a particular role in capacity development with regard to hydrological modelling and the generation of future climate scenarios and adaptation measures.

Modelling in practice

A concrete achievement of the project refers to hydrological modelling tools. Cormagdalena, the authority of the Magdalena River, is now using a distributed hydrological model for the basin built in wFlow. This model was first introduced by Deltares during one of the capacity development workshops organized by IHE Delft and Deltares in 2013 and it is now being coupled to the hydrodynamic models that were developed in parallel by Deltares. "The current use of this model by the local partners is an achievement we are really proud of" says Leonardo Alfonso. 

Adaptation measures

The consortium also introduced the adaptation tipping point analysis method, which evaluates different adaptation measures for climate change by looking at the different components of the system and water users that are affected critically by extreme events such as flooding and droughts.  

For the case study in the Coello Basin, the authorities were enthusiastic about the tools and methods presented by FutureWater. Although not coming from a comprehensive study, the results were taken as an input to continue to evaluate problems in terms of water availability in the catchment in dry seasons.

For the case of the Magdalena River, with the resources and models of future climate available, it was found that the return period of discharges as the one observed in 2011 may increment as high as 1 every 5 years in the second half of this century. Although these results were obtained from state of the art methods and models, teh consortium faced some limitations and adopted some assumptions. Therefore, they have to be interpreted with care.

"Colombia is very rich in water resources, and climate adaptation is a very important topic for the country right now, as these resources may face serious impacts. That’s why we would like to extend this study to more basins in the region. What I can safely say is that I am very proud to have participated in this project. It gave me the opportunity to connect high level researchers and knowledge institutions towards an integrated view for solving these problems in my own country", concludes Leonoardo Alfonso.

More information on this project