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The Middle East Lost a Dead Sea-Size Amount of Water in 7 Years

Posted from Amman, Jordan.  This is the first in a series of posts on our water diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan and Palestine.  Other posts in the series: 2) Parallel Worlds:  Water Management in Israel and California, by UCCHM Policy Fellow Kate Voss; 3) Desalinating Holy Waters with the Red Sea – Dead Sea Conveyance,...

Posted from Amman, Jordan.  This is the first in a series of posts on our water diplomacy trip to Israel, Jordan and Palestine.  Other posts in the series: 2) Parallel Worlds:  Water Management in Israel and California, by UCCHM Policy Fellow Kate Voss; 3) Desalinating Holy Waters with the Red Sea – Dead Sea Conveyance, by UCCHM Graduate Fellow Sasha Richey

This week my research team and I published a new study on recent (2003-2009) water losses in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  We used data from a NASA satellite mission called GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) that essentially weighs regional water storage changes from space.  The picture is not a pretty one.

In the seven-year period that we analyzed, the region lost over 144 cubic kilometers of fresh water, an amount equivalent in volume to the Dead Sea. More detailed analysis revealed that over 60% of the water loss was due to groundwater pumping. Much of this occurred during the drought that began in 2006, and was most likely used for agricultural irrigation.

Depending on varying standards for per capita water use in the region, that’s enough water to supply tens of millions, to over a hundred million people with water for a year.  We continue to monitor the region, and the rates of water loss that we report are continuing into the present.

Vineyard in Israel's Negev desert
Israel excels in highly water efficient farming, but much of the Middle East is still loosing a lot of groundwater. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

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.

Water for Peace

Following the release of our report, lead author Kate Voss (our Water Policy Fellow at the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM)),  UCCHM Graduate Fellow Sasha Richey, Larry Gold from the UC Irvine Chancellor’s Office, and I are visiting Israel, Jordan and Palestine for a two-week water diplomacy trip. We will present and discuss our findings with the national water authorities, at university campuses and to NGOs like the Friends of the Earth Middle East.  We also expect to learn much about how our hosts cope with some of the most severe levels of water stress in the world.  Please see the links at the top of this page for our series of Water Currents posts during the course of our trip.

Prof. Jay Famiglietti presenting the team's research findings at Tel Aviv University, February 20. Photo by Sasha Richey.
Prof. Jay Famiglietti presenting the team’s research findings at The Porter School of Environmental Studies, Tel Aviv University, February 20. Photo by Sasha Richey.

Serendipitously, our report and trip provide a timely opportunity for President Obama in the run-up to his own upcoming visit.  The groundwork could not have been better prepared: a unique opportunity has presented itself to encourage new dialogue on Middle Eastern water issues, and in particular, how they can be a source for collaboration rather than continued, if not heightened conflict.

Better Water Management

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.

Greenhouses abound in the Jordan River Valley.  Photo by Kate Voss.
Greenhouses abound in the Jordan River Valley, limiting water losses by evapotranspiration. Photo by Kate Voss.


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.

Screening 'Last Call at the Oasis' at Al-Quds University in the Palestinian Authority, joint with Friends of the Earth Middle East.  Photo by Kate Voss.
Screening ‘Last Call at the Oasis’ at Al-Quds University in the Palestinian Authority, joint with Friends of the Earth Middle East. Photo by Kate Voss.

A sustainable water future, in the Middle East and around the world, is going to require considerable thoughtfulness, planning and cooperation. Collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders, including those with significant economic, political, or social differences, is imperative.  There really is no other choice. But with great effort, an effective strategy is within our reach.

With President Obama’s upcoming visit, now seems like a very good time to start the process. Otherwise, I’m afraid he may find it difficult to get even a glass of water.

Addendum: Response from Andy Revkin at the New York Times.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jay Famiglietti
Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is also a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he was Founding Director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling. Jay's research group uses satellites and develops computer models to track changing freshwater availability around the globe. Jay is a frequent speaker and an active science communicator. His team's research is often featured in the international news media, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, CNN/Fareed Zakaria GPS, Al Jazeera, National Public Radio, BBC Radio and others. Jay also appears in the water documentary called 'Last Call at the Oasis.'