Climate change and water security in the northern slope of the Tianshan Mountains

Elsevier, Geography and Sustainability, Volume 3, September 2022
Tang Q., Liu X., Zhou Y., Wang P., Li Z., Hao Z. et al.

Water security is under threat worldwide from climate change. A warming climate would accelerate evaporation and cryosphere melting, leading to reduced water availability and unpredictable water supply. However, the water crisis in the Northern Slope of Tianshan Mountains (NSTM) faces dual challenges because water demands for fast-growing urban areas have put heavy pressure on water resources. The mountain-oasis-desert system features glacier-fed rivers that sustain intensive water use in the oasis and end in the desert as fragile terminal lakes. The complex balance between water conservation and economic development is subtle. This paper investigates changes in hydroclimatic variables and water security-related issues on the NSTM. The spatiotemporal variations in glaciers, climatic variables, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, groundwater, surface water, human water use, and streamflow were analyzed for the past four decades. The results show that temperature in the NSTM exhibited an apparent upward trend with a more significant warming rate in the higher altitude regions. Glacier mass loss and shrinkage was strong. The average annual streamflow increased from 1980-1989 to 2006–2011 at most hydrological stations. The monthly dynamics of surface water area showed notable variability at both inter-annual and seasonal scales, revealing the impacts of both natural and anthropogenic drivers on surface water availability in the region. The terrestrial water storage anomaly showed a decreasing trend, which might be related to groundwater pumping for irrigation. Human water use for agriculture and industry grew with the increase in cultivated land area and gross domestic product (GDP). The increased agricultural water use was strongly associated with the expansion of oases. It is unclear whether water availability would remain high under future climatic and hydrological uncertainties, posing challenges to water management. In the context of rapid urban growth and climate change, balancing water for humans and nature is vital in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in NSTM. This study provides a baseline understanding of the interplay among water, climate change, and socio-economic development in NSTM. It would also shed light on wise water management under environmental changes for other rapidly developing mountain-oasis-desert systems worldwide.