News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

NASA Probes Show ‘Alarming’ Water Loss in Middle East

By Lauren Morello


Parts of the Middle East are losing groundwater reserves at “an alarming rate,” according to a new analysis of NASA satellite data.

From the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2009, portions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that lie within the Tigris and Euphrates river basins shed 117 million acre-feet of water. That’s roughly equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea.

The Ataturk reservoir on the Euphrates River in Turkey.
Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

About one-fifth of that water disappeared during a drought that began in 2007, which decreased snowpack that feeds the rivers and dried out soils. Another 20 percent of the lost water came from surface lakes and reservoirs.

But the bulk of the water loss — about 60 percent — came from aggressive groundwater pumping, said the new study, which was published in the journal Water Resources Research.

That includes 1,000 new groundwater wells the Iraqi government dug between 2007 and 2009, to compensate for water lost when it increased flows from its major reservoir, Qadisiyah, to raise drought-lowered river levels along the Euphrates.

“The region is one that really calls out for attention,” said lead author Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine.

The overall rate of freshwater loss from the region during the 7-year study period is one of the highest in the entire world, second only to water loss in India, his study concluded.

“I’m concerned, from a sustainability perspective,” Famiglietti said. “I worry about climate change” — which scientists believe will decrease rainfall in the region — “and population growth, and whether there is going to be enough water to drink and grow food and produce energy.”

Adding to those concerns, researchers said, is the lack of regular, reliable monitoring of water storage in much of the Middle East, and a reluctance to share what little information is available.

“When you’re in a water-stressed region and you share resources across political boundaries, there’s a real reluctance to publish information, to make it freely available,” Famiglietti said.

And there is no legal pressure to do so. Countries in the Tigris and Euphrates basins have not established a system to allocate water rights and jointly manage freshwater flows.

But NASA’s twin GRACE satellites have allowed scientists a clearer view of the region’s water woes than they have been afforded in the past.

The probes — formally named the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment — can detect tiny changes in the Earth’s gravity field caused by changes like groundwater depletion.

“They’re like a scale in the sky,” Famiglietti said of the satellite tandem.

Despite GRACE’s utility, the scientist said he’s hoping to wield an even older tool to help improve water management in the Middle East: diplomacy.

Famiglietti and colleagues were scheduled to leave Saturday for a two-week trip to the region, where they will meet with scientists, water managers and other government officials in several different countries.

“We’re going to present some of these results and talk to water ministers, just to show them what [GRACE] is capable of,” Famiglietti said. “If there’s any interest in Israel, Jordan or Palestine in learning how to use the data, we’re happy to help.”

Related Content
Rising Sea Level May Trigger Groundwater Floods 
High Plains Farmers Depleting Groundwater, Study Says 
Why Groundwater Is Another Sea Level Rise Concern 
Of Mideast Revolts and Global Warming