A new study using data from a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites finds that large parts of the arid Middle East region lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade.
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.From Erin Cunningham's April 2012 article for Global Post (Could Egypt run out of water by 2025?):
The researchers attribute about 60 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
Already strained by water scarcity and political tensions, the arid Middle East along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is losing critical water reserves at a rapid pace, from Turkey upstream to Syria, Iran and Iraq below.
Unable to conduct measurements on the ground in the politically unstable region, UC Irvine scientists and colleagues used data from space to uncover the extent of the problem. They took measurements from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites [GRACE], and found that between 2003 and 2010, the four nations lost 144 cubic kilometers (117 million acre feet) of water – nearly equivalent to all the water in the Dead Sea.
The depletion was especially striking after a drought struck the area in 2007. Researchers attribute the bulk of it – about 60 percent – to pumping of water from underground reservoirs.
They concluded that the Tigris-Euphrates watershed is drying up at a pace second only to that in India.
“This rate is among the largest liquid freshwater losses on the continents,” the scientists report in a paper to be published online Feb. 15 in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
[...] But now, to ease over-crowding near the [Nile] river, Egypt’s government is encouraging its swollen population to move away from the Nile and into the desert — which makes up 95 percent of its area. About half of Egypt’s 80 million people live in the fertile Nile Delta north of Cairo.
The government is offering tracts of sandy wasteland at low-cost if settlers pledge to irrigate the barren parcels.The article mentions that the canals lose as much 3 billion cubic meters of Nile water each year to "evaporation under Egypt’s hot, desert sun." So it's not just a matter of replacing irrigation canals with drip tape to ward off evaporation because the canals are also used to transport water from one site to others at considerable distance.
The Egyptian government has managed to boost its tillable land over the last 50 years by one-quarter, using canals to bring Nile water to the desert. But most of those plots were snatched up by commercial mega-farms that churn out cash crops — like strawberries — for export rather than local consumption. In the end, these green desert farms did little to ease the scarcity of food in Egypt.
“The policy for 60 years has been to expand the cultivated surface of Egypt, getting people out of the valley and into the desert,” [Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo] said. “But it’s a different environment out there. The drainage issues are different. And the irrigation, it needs more power. It involves a much higher capital investment that poor farmers just don’t have.”
Blooming the desert requires funds to build modern irrigation systems capable of pumping water, with energy-fueled, pressurized pipes, out of the Nile Valley.
While it helps alleviate pressure on the Nile Delta, experts say the desert irrigation program only reduces Egypt’s ability to conserve water.
“Think about Egypt as kind of a valley. Gravity suggests if you put too much water on your field in upper [southern] Egypt, it trickles back into the Nile, and you can put it back on a field in lower [northern] Egypt,” said Tutwiler, describing the flood irrigation system that originates at the Aswan Dam in the south.
“But if you take the water out of the valley and put it in the desert, it doesn’t go back into the Nile. It’s lost in the sand.”
From a July 2014 report by John Vidal for the Guardian (Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn):
The outcome of the Iraq and Syrian conflicts may rest on who controls the region’s dwindling water supplies, say security analysts in London and Baghdad.As to whether all Islamic State's invasion plans are specifically predicated on gaining control of water sources, I don't know and the Guardian report doesn't indicate although some passages are suggestive of the idea.
Rivers, canals, dams, sewage and desalination plants are now all military targets in the semi-arid region that regularly experiences extreme water shortages, says Michael Stephen, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute thinktank in Qatar, speaking from Baghdad.
“Control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside. We are seeing a battle for control of water. Water is now the major strategic objective of all groups in Iraq. It’s life or death. If you control water in Iraq you have a grip on Baghdad, and you can cause major problems.Water is essential in this conflict,” he said.
Isis [Islamic State] Islamic rebels now control most of the key upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south and on which all Iraq and much of Syria depends for food, water and industry.
“Rebel forces are targeting water installations to cut off supplies to the largely Shia south of Iraq,” says Matthew Machowski, a Middle East security researcher at the UK houses of parliament and Queen Mary University of London.
“It is already being used as an instrument of war by all sides. One could claim that controlling water resources in Iraq is even more important than controlling the oil refineries, especially in summer. Control of the water supply is fundamentally important. Cut it off and you create great sanitation and health crises,” he said. [...]