Water Shortages and Instability in the Middle East (SEMIDE / EMWIS)

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Will Water Shortages Unleash Instability in the Middle East?

A NASA study, released last Friday, indicates that water shortages could affect millions in the Middle East. Images, captured by NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, reveal significant water loss, in a period of six years, in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins—a region that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The study has focused attention on the Middle East’s water woes and the possible instability it could unleash in the region.

The NASA study

The rise and fall in water reserves alters the Earth’s mass, which influences local gravitational attraction. GRACE measures gravity, and thereby, tells how much a region’s water reserves change over time.

“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,” says Jay Famiglietti, the principal investigator of the study from the University of California, Irvine, quoted by NASA.

According to the study, the majority of the water lost — approximately 73 million acre feet — was caused by reductions in groundwater. Famiglietti also said that irrigators turn to groundwater when drought reduces surface water. The Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells in response to the 2007 drought. According to a 2012 Yale study, the drought stunted agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, causing thousands of people to flee Iran, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq.

The NASA study shows just one part of the water crisis that the Middle East is undergoing. A study conducted by Maplecroft finds that of the top 20 countries suffering extreme or high water stress, 19 are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Unsustainable water extraction and consumption

Rich and poor Middle Eastern countries have exhausted groundwater supplies in their quest for self-sufficiency when it comes to food security. This was part of a “green revolution” that began in the 1970s.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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