NASA Satellites Show Middle East Water Loss
February 12, 2013

Middle East Rivers Losing Critical Water Reserves

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Scientists are reporting in the journal Water Resources Research the Middle East river basin is losing large quantities of water.

The researchers used a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites to find that during a seven-year period, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basin have lost 117 million acre feet of freshwater, which is about the equivalent to the Dead Sea.

Using NASA's twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites helped the team assess the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region.

"As our paper explains, some of the cause of the rapid decline of water reserves is due to drought while the majority is due to depletion of groundwater resources," Katalyn Voss, lead author and a water policy fellow with the University of California´s Center for Hydrologic Modeling in Irvine, told redOrbit.

She said this area is only expected to see less precipitation and more drought in the future due to climate change.

"With the depletion of groundwater resources, additional knowledge about the groundwater reserves in the area by increasing the monitoring of these resources is essential," Voss told redOrbit. "The ground-based data is necessary for any substantive, local and regional water planning."

Jay Famiglietti, the study´s principal investigator and a UC Irvine professor of Earth system science, said being able to use GRACE was like using a giant scale in the sky. He said doing work across the borders makes it difficult to obtain certain data from different countries, because neighbors do not want to share with each other how much water they are using.

"On that note, perhaps the most important, actionable solution is to increase collaboration between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq," Voss told redOrbit in an email. "As the three stakeholders in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, a comprehensive agreement that dictates allocations and responsibilities for water use and supply is necessary."

She said without a water agreement between the three countries, the region will not be able to sustainably manage its water resources.

This study, according to Voss, highlights the opportunity remotely-sensed and modeled data can provide in regions where data can be nonexistent due to the lack of monitoring, or for political reasoning.

"With tools like GRACE, we can bypass the lack of observational data and still form an accurate understanding of the changes occurring in our water resources," Voss added. "The Tigris-Euphrates river basin is just one example where this approach is valuable."

She said she hopes the research will prompt a response to make data more accessible, and to increase on-the-ground monitoring of water resources.

"Until those data are available, using remotely-sensed and modeled data is definitely one of our best current capabilities to evaluable changing water availability," Voss told redOrbit.