Climate change induced water stress – participatory modelling to identify risks and opportunities in Austrian regions (WaterStressAT)

In WaterStressAT we assess water availability and demand in Austrian regions considering alternative socio-economic and climate futures. This is to understand the risk of water stress and associated management opportunities. We are in the process of establishing a stakeholder co-design process spanning the entire project duration involving joint problem-framing, participatory modelling, and co-producing bottom-up water stress scenarios as well as risk management options.




Austria is a water-rich country, with only 3% of overall available water being used. The Austrian Panel on Climate Change reports that across the country and on average climate change will not affect water availability significantly. However, locally and regionally, climate change will likely increase pressure on freshwater resources due to decreasing runoff, increasing temperatures – most importantly extreme heat events –, and subsequent increases in water demand. Also, provincial governments acknowledge increasing numbers of drought events and water stress due to competing demands during extremely dry and hot periods. In the light of climate change, water stress, i.e. tension between available water and sectoral demand, such as from agriculture, domestic and industrial uses and ecosystems, is likely to increase in these and potentially in other regions of Austria. It is in these areas and at these scales, i.e. local to regional, where high resolution modeling (both qualitative and quantitative) is lacking and consequently risks of water stress and management opportunities are insufficiently understood.

Research design

Policymakers and stakeholders need information on future development of water availability, water demand, and potential conflicts to act and plan accordingly. Thus, the overall objective of WaterStressAT is to assess water supply and demand in Austrian regions considering alternative socio-economic and climate futures, to better understand the risk of water stress and associated management opportunities.

This can be translated into a set of research questions such as: 

• What are current regional and sectoral development strategies and how will they contribute to future water stress? 
• Which sectors will be most affected by and contribute most to water stress? 
• Which management strategies are available to cope with water stress? 
• And finally, what are socially and environmentally accepted management strategies with respect to water stress? 

Figure 1: WaterStress work package structure

To fulfill this objective and answer these questions we need to overcome the challenges associated with complex problems: (1) The nexus character of water stress spanning natural and human systems and (2) the so-called wicked character of many environmental decision problems, associated with high stakes, extensive uncertainties, and conflicting values.

We thus apply a multi-pronged approach combining qualitative and quantitative methods of systems analysis and allowing for stakeholders to co-design both problems and solutions. To achieve high-resolution qualitative and quantitative modeling we limit the scope and choose two regional case studies, representing different environmental and socio-economic settings and indicators for ongoing and future water stress. 
We operationalize this project as four work packages and a continuous integration process and extensive synthesis among the same as depicted in Figure 1.
(WP1) Work package 1 entails a stakeholder process spanning the entire project and ensuring a transdisciplinary process. Thus, stakeholders will participate at each stage of our qualitative and quantitative modeling efforts in the subsequent work packages: (1) fact-finding and problem framing, (2a) qualitative modeling defining system boundaries and system elements, (2b) semi-quantitative modeling creating scenarios, (3) reflecting system boundaries, as well as hydrological and climatic futures; and (4) designing and appraising management strategies.

(WP2) We support the engagement process with systematic qualitative analysis of the social and economic systems in each case study region. For this purpose, we use a soft systems approach to integrate various qualitative source data such as strategy and policy documents, key informant interviews, stakeholder events, and academic literature, to create a comprehensive map highlighting important interactions and feedback in the region related to water use. These will be the basis for a set of scenarios informing the hydro-economic model in WP4.

(WP3) We create a solid and unique quantitative basis for the integrated assessment framework (WP4) in terms of hydrological and climate futures through the use of state-of-the-art climatic scenarios and high-resolution spatially distributed hydrological modeling. 

(WP4) WP4 integrates knowledge from WPs 1 and 2 from a quantitative perspective. We adapt an integrated modeling framework, to the Austrian regional specifications, and use this to calculate water supply and demand under alternative climate scenarios and shared socio-economic development scenarios. This framework allows us to analyze a set of management strategies, such as efficient irrigation systems, groundwater recharge, and intra-regional connection of supply networks.

The synthesized project results will be immediately relevant for cross-sectoral policy making locally, regionally, and nationally. Academically, it will further insight on integrating hard and soft modeling approaches, and applying a transdisciplinary research design.

Project details

Project duration: 1 October 2020 – 30 November 2022
Funding Agency: Österreichischer Klima- und Energiefonds (Austrian Climate and Energy Fund)
Funding Program: Austrian Climate Research Program (ACRP), ACRP – 12th Call, 2019, KR19AC0K17504,

Thematic Area: Specific support for Austria’s policymakers

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Last edited: 30 September 2020


Susanne Hanger-Kopp

Research Scholar Equity and Justice Research Group - Population and Just Societies Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 508


October 2020 - November 2022



30 Nov 2021 - 02 Dec 2021


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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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