NASA reports catastrophic water loss for Middle East

Freshwater reserves in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria & along the Tigris & Euphrates river basins have lost an incredible 117 million acre feet (144 km³) of total underground freshwater, the 2nd fastest loss of groundwater storage loss after India.

By The Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff



An amount of freshwater almost amounting to the volume of the Dead Sea has been lost in parts of the Middle East due to poor management, increased demands for groundwater and the effects of a 2007 drought, according to a NASA study.

An Iraqi woman checks her dried land. Turkey controls the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters, which dictates how much water flows downstream into Syria and Iraq. – Photo: AP

The study, to be published Friday in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, examined data over seven years, starting in 2003, from a pair of gravity-measuring satellites that are part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment or GRACE.

Researchers found that freshwater reserves in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, had lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of its total stored freshwater, the second fastest loss of groundwater storage after India.

About 60 percent of the loss resulted from pumping underground reservoirs for ground water, including 1,000 wells in Iraq, and another fifth was due to the impact of the 2007 drought, including declining snow packs and dried up soil. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another 20% of the decline, the study found.

“This rate of water loss is among the largest liquid freshwater losses on the continents,” the authors wrote in the study, noting the declines were most obvious after a drought.

The study is the latest evidence of a worsening water crisis in the Middle East, where demands from growing populations, war and the worsening effects of climate change are raising the prospect that some countries could face severe water shortages in the decades to come. Some, like impoverished Yemen, blame their water woes on the semi-arid conditions and grinding poverty, while the oil-rich Gulf faces water shortages mostly due to the economic boom that has created glistening cities out of the desert.

rain average

Israel ‘obviously stole their rain’, when showing such surplus rain, unseen for the last decade.

In a report released during the U.N. climate talks in Qatar, the World Bank concluded among the most critical problems in the Middle East and North Africa will be worsening water shortages. The region already has the lowest amount of freshwater in the world. With climate change, droughts in the region are expected to turn more extreme, water runoff is expected to decline 10% by 2050, while demand for water is expected to increase 60% by 2045.

One of the biggest challenges to improving water conservation is often competing demands, which has worsened the problem in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins.

Turkey controls the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters, as well as the reservoirs and infrastructure of Turkey’s Greater Anatolia Project, which dictates how much water flows downstream into Syria and Iraq, the researchers said. With no coordinated water management between the three countries, tensions have intensified since the 2007 drought because Turkey continues to divert water to irrigate its farmland.

“That decline in stream flow put a lot of pressure on northern Iraq,” Kate Voss, lead author of the study and a water policy fellow with the University of California’s Center for Hydrological Modeling in Irvine, said. “Both the U.N. and anecdotal reports from area residents note that once stream flow declined, this northern region of Iraq had to switch to groundwater. In an already fragile social, economic and political environment, this did not help the situation.”

Jay Famiglietti, principle investigator of the new study and a hydrologist and UC Irvine professor of Earth System Science, plans to visit the region later this month, along with Voss and two other UC Irvine colleagues, to discuss their findings and raise awareness of the problem and the need for a regional approach to solve the problem.

“They just do not have that much water to begin with, and they’re in a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” Famiglietti said. “Those dry areas are getting dryer. They and everyone else in the world’s arid regions need to manage their available water resources as best they can.”

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