Global change scenarios in coastal river deltas and their sustainable development implications

Murray W. Scown*, Frances E. Dunn, Stefan C. Dekker, Detlef P. van Vuuren, Sitar Karabil, Edwin H. Sutanudjaja, Maria J. Santos, Philip S.J. Minderhoud, Ahjond S. Garmestani, Hans Middelkoop

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Deltas play a critical role in the ambition to achieve global sustainable development given their relatively large shares in population and productive croplands, as well as their precarious low-lying position between upstream river basin development and rising seas. The large pressures on these systems risk undermining the persistence of delta societies, economies, and ecosystems. We analyse possible future development in 49 deltas around the globe under the Shared Socio-economic and Representative Concentration Pathways until 2100. Population density, urban fraction, and total and irrigated cropland fraction are three to twelve times greater in these deltas, on average, than in the rest of the world. Maximum river water discharges are projected to increase by 11–33 % and river sediment discharges are projected to decrease 26–37 % on average, depending on the scenario. Regional sea-level rise reaches almost 1.0 m by 2100 for certain deltas in the worst-case scenario, increasing to almost 2.0 m of relative rise considering land subsidence. Extreme sea levels could be much higher still—reaching over 4.0 m by 2100 for six of the 49 deltas analysed. Socio-economic conditions to support adaptation are the weakest among deltas with the greatest pressures, compounding the challenge of sustainable development. Asian and African deltas stand out as having heightened socio-economic challenges—huge population and land use pressures in most Asian deltas and the Nile delta; low capacity for adaptation in most African deltas and the Irrawaddy delta. Although, deltas in other parts of the world are not immune from these and other pressures, either. Because of unique pressures and processes operating in deltas, as in other “hotspots” such as small islands, mountains, and semi-arid areas, we recommend greater consideration and conceptualisation of environmental processes in global sustainable development agendas and in the Integrated Assessment Models used to guide global policy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102736
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Climate risk
  • RCP
  • Sea-level rise
  • SSP
  • Sustainable development
  • Urbanisation


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