Climate change and growing population are expected to severely affect freshwater availability across much of Europe by the end of 21th century. In a warmer climate, many river basins, especially in the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, and the Balkan region, are likely to become more prone to periods of reduced water supply, risking considerable impacts on the society, the environment, and the economy. Early-stage drought conditions will develop across southern Europe as early as a decade from now and will intensify as the century progresses, with up to a 40 percent reduction in minimum stream flow by the 2080s in this area. The cost of drought in Europe, which over the past three decades has amounted to over 100 billion euros, will considerably increase as future droughts are expected to be more severe and long lasting. How to deal with these climate change effects is not anymore a long-term planning problem, it is rather a short/medium-term management challenge, which has already manifested its potential negative impact in a number of situations. For example, in the last twelve years, the Lombardy region, Italy, experienced a number of extremely dry years (e.g., 2003 and 2005) when most of the river basins suffered severe water crises. These droughts exacerbated the conflicts between the river basin stakeholders, ultimately generating significant economic losses. In these areas, planning and designing adaptation measures is inescapable to secure food and energy while balancing environmental sustainability. Yet, a complete understanding of the risks associated with the incoming droughts by the multiple local institutions concerned with water management is not easily and quickly achievable. Historically, water availability has not been a major limiting factor in the region and water abundance rather than scarcity was often the primary concern. As a consequence, water institutions are not inclined to change their consolidated practices and this policy inertia represents a major barrier for policy change, particularly under the non-stationary conditions predicted for the next years. The last-century dominant approach to cope with water scarcity largely relied on a hard-path, by investing in centralized, large-scale infrastructures such as dams and distribution systems, with the purpose of expanding the existing supply capacity. Yet, nowadays, such a hard-path is becoming economically, socially and environmentally unsustainable. The absence of stationarity also complicates the evaluation process in planning new infrastructures, as past hydrologic conditions no longer reflect future ones.
The SO-WATCH project aims to develop and test a novel decision-analytic framework to assist decision-makers of the Lake Como river basin (Italy) in designing and assessing alternative soft-path adaptation measures to increase the system flexibility by means of distributed and participatory management, coordination mechanisms, low-cost and reversible infrastructural interventions, and smart economics. This increased flexibility will contribute in improving the overall water productivity at the river basin scale by making water management more efficient under current and projected hydro-climatic and socio-techno-economic conditions.