Future challenges

The most recent IPCC report  shows that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, which will intensify in the future depending on greenhouse gas emissions. Low-lying and densely populated deltas are among the regions most exposed to these effects. Delta land areas are projected to decline globally, and current socio-economic development prohibits natural delta processes and complicates future adaptation in many deltas. Future research must therefore focus on exploring integrated solutions in time to accelerate climate change adaptation and secure the sustainable development of our world’s deltas.

The decade of action has begun to support climate resilient delta development

Options for action 

In recent decades, the scientific community mainly focussed on identifying the causes and consequences of climate change. "Now", argues Marjolijn Haasnoot, associate professor of water management and climate adaptation, "the decade of solutions and action has begun to support climate resilient delta development". To design effective and feasible adaptation measures, an understanding of both local biophysical and socio-economic characteristics of deltas is required. “Providing stakeholders with insight into the adaptation options, their effectiveness and feasibility over time, and how they can be increased can help to accelerate adaptation action. For this it is important to also consider the long-term impacts of climate change and adaptation measures and what this means for the near-term, in order to make the necessary preparations, avoid lock-ins and innovate", concludes Marjolijn Haasnoot.  

Long-term solutions space

Since deltas are at the frontline of climate change, adaptation is inevitable and cannot be limited to incidental and incremental measures but should also include large-scale transformative measures. By starting these transitions in time and linking them to socio-economic developments, such as urbanization and population growth, the creation of locked-in situations can be prevented during the planning. However, adaptation efforts are currently lacking due to, for example, low political willingness, uncertainty about the future and short-termism. Future research can therefore help decision makers to define pathways for adaptation action (Storyline: Pathways of delta development) by exploring their long-term solution space, i.e. revealing forces and strategies that influence climate change adaptation in time. 

Illustration of the concept solution space
Conceptualisation of the solution space (grey area), possible shaping actions, changes and shocks (arrows), and alternative adaptation pathways in the solution space (coloured lines). Source: Haasnoot et al. (2020), reprinted with permission

Different boundary conditions

Deltas worldwide have varying baseline situations and boundary conditions, which influences their current and future states as well as the main barriers for large-scale transitions and adaptation measures. Changes in these boundary conditions due to human and environmental pressures result in different and sometimes contrasting future scenarios. Therefore, there is no one size fits all strategy for delta management, but strategies need to be developed on delta-level.