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Could the Middle East run out of water? New NASA images warn of water shortage

NASA has reported that satellite images reveal an alarming depletion of two important Middle East fresh water sources, the latest sign the region could face a water shortage affecting millions.

The images, captured by NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, reveals the Tigris and Euphrates river basins in the Middle East have experienced a significant loss in terms of water volume.

The study, published in Friday’s edition of the journal Water Resources Research, compiles aggregated data regarding the region’s freshwater sources over the course of a number of years. The research was conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the University of California, Irvine; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Jay Famiglietti, the principal investigator of the study from the University of California, Irvine, said the current rate of water depletion in the Middle East is reaching an alarming rate.

“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 Famiglietti.

In a news release for NASA and the University of California, Irvine, it was revealed that the fresh water depletion has been steadily growing for the past seven years. According to the press release, regions in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran have been experiencing the water loss along the Tigris and the Euphrates since 2003. Since then, the river basins have lost an estimated 117 million acre feet, or 144 cubic kilometers, of fresh water. The news release is quick to point out that this is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. According to the study, roughly 60 percent of the water is due to the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs, which scientists believe is unsustainable

According to Famiglietti, the new data could mean serious trouble for the Middle East. A number of governments around the world have pointed to protecting key sources of fresh water as a major priority. The issue is not confined to the Middle East. Today, 36 percent of the global population—approximately 2.4 billion people—live in water-scarce regions and 22 percent of the world’s GDP ($9.4 trillion at 2000 prices) is produced in water-short areas. Moreover, 39 percent of current global grain production — a major source of food for populations around the world — is not sustainable in terms of water use.

“The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought,” he said. “Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”

The GRACE instruments are gravity-sensing satellites that hover above Earth taking pictures of the landscape. While the remote-sensing satellite technology is fairly new, it has shown great promise by providing scientists with unique pictures of various regions around the globe. In fact, satellite imagery has done so much for science that Nova has created a new two-hour special documenting the importance of the technology. The the special, titled Earth from Space will air Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on PBS.