NASA study finds huge Middle East freshwater loss

Depleted reserves equivalent to amount of water in Dead Sea

The study has recorded a worryingly high rate of freshwater depletion since 2003. (NASA IMAGES)
The study has recorded a worryingly high rate of freshwater depletion since 2003. (NASA IMAGES)

A new study using a pair of NASA satellites has found evidence of rapid depletion of groundwater reserves across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The research, which included scientists from the University of California, Irvine; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, has found that the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater over a seven year period from 2003. This is, the researchers say, almost equivalent to the amount of water in the Dead Sea.

The research was conducted using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which are currently being used to provide a clearer picture of global freshwater storage.

Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator for the study, said: “GRACE data shows an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on earth, after India. The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”

The study calculated that around one-fifth of the water losses were the result of soil drying up and snowpack melting – partly as a result of the drought in 2007. Surface water from lakes and reservoirs amounted to around another fifth of the losses. However, the majority – about 90 cubic kilometres – was as a result of groundwater pumping. This is, Famiglietti said, “enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability.”

Lead author of the study, Kate Voss, added: “Water management is a complex issue in the Middle East – an area that already is dealing with limited water resources and competing stakeholders.”

Famiglietti concluded: “The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change. Those dry areas are getting dryer. The Middle East and the world’s other arid regions need to manage available water resources as best they can.”



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