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Thu 14 Feb 2013 12:51 PM

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MidEast rapidly losing freshwater - study

Freshwater supplies are drying up with groundwater pumping largely to blame

MidEast rapidly losing freshwater - study
(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Middle East’s freshwater reserves are drying up, according to a new study which researched the region during a seven-year period.

Scientists at the University of California, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, and the National Centre of Atmospheric Research found that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117m acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of its total stored freshwater.

The amount is almost equivalent to the total water in the Dead Sea, and the researchers claim pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs  accounts for about 60 percent of the loss.

The team used two gravity-measuring NASA satellites in their research, and the findings are due to be published on 15 February in the journal Water Resources Research. It is one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region, an area from which it has been difficult to obtain ground data, making the satellites vital to the study.

The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites showed an “alarming rate of decrease in total water storage” in the river basins, said Jay Famiglietti, priciniple investigator of the study and hydrologist and professor at the University of California.

He added these basins “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 research team calculated that about one fifth of the water losses they recorded came about from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly in response to the drought. Another fifth resulted from loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs. But the majority of the water loss was due to reductions in groundwater, accounting for approximately 73m acre feet (90 cubic kilometers).

Famiglietti said: “That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a 100m people in the region each year.”

The 2007 drought led to a heavy depletion of surface water, meaning water users turned to the groundwater reserves. Furthermore, Iraqi authorities ordered the drilling of more than 1,000 water wells to alleviate the problem – a figure which could in fact be higher due to private wells being drilled.

One of the study’s authors, Kate Voss, said: “That decline in stream flow put a lot of pressure on northern Iraq. Both the UN and anecdotal reports from area residents note that  once stream flow declined, this northern region of Iraq had to switch to groundwater.”

A Global Water Security report produced by US intelligence agencies in 2012 found that the Middle East is naturally the driest region in the world, alongside North Africa, making it the most vulnerable to water shortages. It added that the situation was exacerbated by a lack of legal agreements and political instability.

Famiglietti said: “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. 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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