NASA’s Startling Satellite Data Shows Massive Drop In Mideast Freshwater Reserves During Warming-Driven Drought

Variations in total water storage from normal in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins (from 1/03 through 12/09), as measured by NASA’s GRACE satellites (Full image here).

By Alan Buis, Steve Cole, and Janet Wilson, via NASA

A new study using data from a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites finds that large parts of the arid Middle East region lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade.

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003 that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

The findings … published Friday, Feb. 15, in the journal Water Resources Research, are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as those from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, are essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.

GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” said Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator of the study and a hydrologist and professor at UC Irvine. “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.”

Famiglietti said GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, rising or falling water reserves alter Earth’s mass, influencing how strong the local gravitational attraction is. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE tells us how much each region’s water storage changes over time.

“GRACE really is the only way we can estimate groundwater storage changes from space right now,” Famiglietti said.

The team calculated about one-fifth of the observed water losses resulted from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly in response to the 2007 drought. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another fifth of the losses. The majority of the water lost — approximately 73 million acre feet (90 cubic kilometers) — was due to reductions in groundwater.

“That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability,” said Famiglietti.

Famiglietti said when a drought reduces an available surface water supply, irrigators and other water users turn to groundwater supplies. For example, the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells in response to the 2007 drought, a number that does not include the numerous private wells landowners also very likely drilled.

“Water management is a complex issue in the Middle East — an area that already is dealing with limited water resources and competing stakeholders,” said Kate Voss, lead author of the study and a water policy fellow with the University of California’s Center for Hydrological Modeling in Irvine, which Famiglietti directs.

“The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” said Famiglietti. “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.”

Study co-author Matt Rodell of Goddard added it is important to remember groundwater is being extracted unsustainably in parts of the United States, as well.

“Groundwater is like your savings account,” Rodell said. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.”

GRACE is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., developed the GRACE spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more about GRACE, visit: and

— This piece originally appeared at

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8 Responses to NASA’s Startling Satellite Data Shows Massive Drop In Mideast Freshwater Reserves During Warming-Driven Drought

  1. Jim Baird says:

    And yet oil tankers deadhead to the Middle East with salt water in their ballast tanks?

  2. Jack Burton says:

    Years back someone tried to bring a tanker into the Great Lakes, a smaller one of course, and fill it with fresh lake water for a journey to the Middle East where the water was already sold under contract. This is drinking water quality, and valued much higher than oil. Canada got wind of the scheme and stepped in to stop it. Canada has interests in the Great Lakes as it is an international body of water under all kinds of mutual agreements between the US and Canada and between individual states and provinces.
    It was one of the first actual tries to get this water, more will come from a thirsty US Midwest. Yet lake levels are slowly falling already, due to warmer summers and less snow in winter. If this trend continues, Great Lakes shipping could be in crisis by the end of this decade.

  3. Jim Baird says:

    Jack as a Canadian I find this to be extremely short sighted. Living in British Columbia doubly so. We have regions of the province where rainfall averages exceed 10 feet per year thanks to Nature’s desalination efforts. Nearly all of this ends up back in the Pacific doing nonone any good.

    Wrote piece on this at

    As to Great Lakes, the Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal could alleviate this the problem, while supply power and water for export.

    Canada has 20% of the world’s fresh water and 60% of this flows north. There are 3 corridors which can be reversed to North America’s benefit.

  4. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Maybe Canada should be exporting freshwater instead of high carbon tar oil.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    The map shows severe drought in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Syria.

    The news shows severe problems in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Syria.

    Hmmm . . .

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    So very much less water available in a politically unstable area. Gwynne Dyer had the timing too far out.

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Drought causes worldwide olive shortage
    Prices for olives and olive oil rising sharply

    The cause? As much as a 60 percent drop in the fall 2012 harvest in Spain and the Mediterranean, the world’s largest olive producing region.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Compare this to the discovery that evaporation from irrigation in California’s Central Valley contributes to clouds that carry rain eastward to as far as Colorado and Nebraska.

    What is happening in the Middle East to the aquifer-sourced water that is lost in evaporation? Which way does the wind blow?