NASA uses its GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) satellites to measure the differential in gravity from place to place across the Earth to infer differences in water content. Launched in 2002 in partnership with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, it is the first accurate observation of water availability from space. If that sounds a lot like GRAIL, which recently spiked into the moon, that’s because it is precisely the same technology.
GRACE is helpful, as they say, “when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.” In other words, where people don’t particularly like us.
And their observation? Second only to the Indian subcontinent, the Fertile Crescent is losing a shocking amount of fresh water:
Scientists at the University of California, Irvine; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003 that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
The presser goes on to state that this amount of water would service as many as 100 million people. Where would that much water go?
As much as one fifth of the loss is due to drought in the region. But the rest is purely a function of irrigation and siphoning of water away from the ground and into cities.
When we talk about destabilizing forces in a region, the too-often missed component is fresh water. Without fresh water, humans cannot survive. And when groundwater becomes municipal well water, it becomes political and a commodity. Particularly in this region, that is worrisome.