In 2007, a powerful drought sent people living near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—which feed Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey—to turn to the stores of fresh water locked underground. In response to the drought, says NASA, “the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells”—a project that increased consumption of groundwater from aquifers buried deep beneath the country.
That 2007 spike in groundwater use was one dramatic example of a longer trend in the region, documented in a new study, of over-using the fresh water that is stored in subsurface aquifers. In the video above, satellite estimations gathered by NASA’s GRACE mission show the seasonal ebb-and-flow of the region’s groundwater stores, with aquifers filling up in the winter and draining in the summer. On top of this annual oscillation, you can also see the obvious trend of the aquifers steadily drying out over the 2003-2009 study period: the winter blues get less blue, and the summer reds get deeper.
Relying too heavily on groundwater can cause these subsurface stores of fresh water to fade. What’s happening in the Middle East has also been a problem in the midwestern United States, especially during this past summer’s drought. Aquifers take a long time to fill back up, and eventually, they will dry out.
Some of the groundwater loss in the Middle East did come from the 2007 drought conditions (rather than people’s response to them) and from other effects. But NASA says that “about 60 percent” of the region’s shrinking water supply was because of overdrawn groundwater stores.
According to the Associated Press, the mismanaging of their groundwater supplies means that the Middle Eastern countries have now effectively lost “117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of its total stored freshwater,” a volume “almost the size of the Dead Sea.”
The study is the latest evidence of a worsening water crisis in the Middle East, where demands from growing populations, war and the worsening effects of climate change are raising the prospect that some countries could face sever water shortages in the decades to come.
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