NASA study finds that Middle East's water is disappearing fast

A Dead Sea's worth of water has disappeared from the Middle East. It sounds like something out of Carmen Sandiego, but it's actually the finding of a joint study by scientists from NASA, the University of California, Irvine, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published today in the journal Water Resources Research.

Using gravity-measuring NASA satellites -- which allowed them to bypass political boundaries and gather data from space -- the scientists learned that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet of stored freshwater. Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine described the findings:

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

According to the researchers, the countries directly impacted by this trend are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- not exactly the world's most politically stable states.

So how will this play out? While "water wars" are often forebodingly cast as the next big source of global conflict, water security researcher Peter H. Brooks, writing in Foreign Policy, has dismissed some of the hype as alarmist and not all that new, citing Mark Twain's own observation that "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin over." But, he adds that the Tigris and Euphrates basins -- which are ripe with border disputes, conflict over Kurdish minorities, and now major conflicts in Syria and Iraq -- might be more prone to the insidious effects of water instability than other places around the globe.

In 2009, responding to severe water shortages, Iraqi parliament demanded an increase in the share of Turkish river waters. Despite this and continued droughts, Turkey has continued building dams. As broader regional instability permeates into Syria and Iraq, expect water to play an increasingly important role in future local and international disputes between these three countries.

Already, there have been pitched battles over dams in the Syrian civil war, and regional dynamics could shift as Iran seeks water from Afghanistan. As if countries in the Middle East need something new to fight about.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

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