February 24, 2013

Water Losses in Middle East


A new report, utilizing satellite data from NASA, shows water storage declining sharply in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  In the seven year period studied, from 2003 to 2009, “the region lost over 144 cubic kilometers of fresh water, an amount equivalent in volume to the Dead Sea,” and the rates of reported water loss are continuing. The report’s lead author, Jay Famigliette of the University of California, summarizes the results at National Geographic  

Our team’s expectation is that the water situation in the Middle East will only degrade with time, primarily due to climate change.  The best available science indicates that the arid and semi-arid regions of the world will become even more so:  the dry areas of the world will become drier (while conversely, the wet areas will become wetter).  Consequences for the Middle East include more prolonged drought, which means that the underground aquifers that store the region’s groundwater will not be replenished during our lifetimes, nor during those of future generations. 

Moreover, the rapid rates of groundwater depletion that we report will only accelerate the drying of the region, placing additional stress on already overtaxed resources.  After all, a typical human response to drought is to rely more heavily on groundwater resources, since more accessible surface waters are not available. 

Declining water availability in the Middle East is consistent with an emerging, if not alarming, global picture.  Our satellite data and available measurements on the ground now tell us that most of the world’s aquifers in the dry parts of our planet are being rapidly depleted. The human fingerprint of water management has left an indelible and irreversible impression on our water landscape.  Climate change and population growth only conspire to make this bad situation worse.  The Middle East is by no means alone in its water woes.  Analogies are present on nearly every continent, including the key aquifers in the U. S. – the Ogallala and the Central Valley. . . . 

We cannot reverse climate change and its impact on water availability, but we can and must do a far better job with water management, including the modernization of national and international water policy.  Our research and its implications point to the following critical needs, not only for the Middle East, but in all regions of the world where groundwater resources are in decline. 

First, it’s high time for groundwater to be included under the water management umbrella. In most of the world, groundwater pumping is unmonitored and unregulated.  It is as true in much of the U. S. as it is in the Middle East.  That’s no different than making withdrawals from a savings account without keeping track of the amount or the remaining balance:  irresponsible without question, and a recipe for disaster when multiple account holders are acting independently. 

Second, since nearly 80% of the world’s water resources are used to support agriculture, continued improvements in agricultural and irrigation conservation and efficiency should be an important focus for research, development, investment and cooperation.  In the Middle East, some countries, notably Israel, are pioneers of efficiency, while others are less advanced.  Much of the technology is in place. It just needs to be disseminated and embraced across the entire region. 

Third, our report and others that have preceded it clearly demonstrate that satellite technology has advanced to the point where a reliable assessment of regional hydrology can be produced with little access to observations on the ground. Our 2009 study of groundwater depletion in India is yet another example of current capabilities. My point is that data denial policies amongst nations will ultimately be rendered obsolete.  It will be far better to share key measurements now, to enhance and fully utilize the satellite picture for mutually beneficial water management in the long term. 

Finally, the priority of international water policy discussions must be elevated.  All around the world, we will increasingly be faced with the need to share water across political boundaries, either within nations or between them.  More generally, our common water future must accommodate the ability to move water, either literally or virtually, from the regions that have it to the regions that do not. The international policy and legal framework is simply not in place to ensure peaceable water management capable of circumnavigating the complexities of the 21st century water landscape.  In the Middle East, the difference in interpretation of how Tigris-Euprhates waters should be shared amongst riparian countries is a prime example of obstacles that must be overcome, cooperatively. . . .


These two NASA photos, acquired by the Landsat 5 satellite, show the startling loss of water in the Qadisiyah Reservoir in Iraq between September 7, 2006 and September 15, 2009, "Freshwater Stores Shrink in Tigris-Euphrates Basin," March 13, 2013.

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