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Tigris and Euphrates River Basin Has Lost as Much Water as the Dead Sea

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First Posted: Feb 12, 2013 05:09 PM EST
The Tigris River in Iraq during a sandstorm.

The Tigris River in Iraq during a sandstorm. Credit:Reuters

The Tigris and Euphrates River Basin is losing water at a startling pace. Between 2003 and 2010, the region, which includes land in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, has lost as much water as there is in the Dead Sea.

How does a watershed lose enough water to cover 117 million acres in one foot of water? Researchers say about 60 percent comes from pumping water from underground reservoirs. This rate of water loss is the largest after that of India.

Water management in the region is a complicated issue. Turkey has jurisdiction over the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the reservoirs and dams of its Southeastern Anatolia Project actually control the water flow into Syria, Iraq and Iran. Tensions were raised when, during a 2007 drought, Turkey continued to divert water from the system to irrigate crops.

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A new study to be published in the American Geophysical Union journal Water Resources Research shows the extent of the water loss, using data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites. Researchers from UC Irvine were unable to study the region on the ground because of political instability.

"Whenever you do international work, it's exceedingly difficult to obtain data from different countries," Jay Famiglietti, hydrologist, UC Irvine Earth system science professor and principal investigator of the study told Phys Org. For political, economic and security reasons, neighbors don't want each other to know how much water they're using. In regions like the Middle East, where data are relatively inaccessible, satellite observations are among the few options."

GRACE is "like having a giant scale in the sky," said Famiglietti. Changing water reserves in a region change the Earth's mass in that region, and with it, the gravitational attraction in that area. This allows scientists to remotely assess the amount of water in the region. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center calculated that the 291,00 square mile Tigris-Euphrates River Basin has lost an average of 16 million acre feet annually.

The problem seems to be only getting worse. "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 drier," said Famiglietti.

The once fertile region around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is historically known as the cradle of civilization, where human civilization first emerged.

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