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Effects of afforestation on water yield: a global synthesis with implications for policy

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Abstract

Carbon sequestration programs, including afforestation and reforestation, are gaining attention globally and will alter many ecosystem processes, including water yield. Some previous analyses have addressed deforestation and water yield, while the effects of afforestation on water yield have been considered for some regions. However, to our knowledge no systematic global analysis of the effects of afforestation on water yield has been undertaken. To assess and predict these effects globally, we analyzed 26 catchment data sets with 504 observations, including annual runoff and low flow. We examined changes in the context of several variables, including original vegetation type, plantation species, plantation age, and mean annual precipitation (MAP). All of these variables should be useful for understanding and modeling the effects of afforestation on water yield. We found that annual runoff was reduced on average by 44% (±3%) and 31% (±2%) when grasslands and shrublands were afforested, respectively. Eucalypts had a larger impact than other tree species in afforested grasslands (P=0.002), reducing runoff (90) by 75% (±10%), compared with a 40% (±3%) average decrease with pines. Runoff losses increased significantly with plantation age for at least 20 years after planting, whether expressed as absolute changes (mm) or as a proportion of predicted runoff (%) (P<0.001). For grasslands, absolute reductions in annual runoff were greatest at wetter sites, but proportional reductions were significantly larger in drier sites (P<0.01 and P<0.001, respectively). Afforestation effects on low flow were similar to those on total annual flow, but proportional reductions were even larger for low flow (P<0.001). These results clearly demonstrate that reductions in runoff can be expected following afforestation of grasslands and shrublands and may be most severe in drier regions. Our results suggest that, in a region where natural runoff is less than 10% of MAP, afforestation should result in a complete loss of runoff; where natural runoff is 30% of precipitation, it will likely be cut by half or more when trees are planted. The possibility that afforestation could cause or intensify water shortages in many locations is a tradeoff that should be explicitly addressed in carbon sequestration programs.
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Keywords: afforestation; land-use change; plantation; runoff; water yield

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2005-10-01

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