Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Matthew Mitch makes this connection here…

The news entitled, “NASA Satellites Find Freshwater Losses in Middle East” was reported by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology on February 13th, 2013. This article dealt primarily with the domain of hydrology as it discussed the access to and use of fresh groundwater reserves in the Middle East as well as the rate at which it is being drained. While the title says it best, the article was about the dwindling underground water supply in the areas of Syria, Iraq and Iran. (See Figure 1) Using an impressive technology called GRACE, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment; scientists are able to use satellites to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth at any point. Using complex calculations, scientists working with GRACE are able to measure the amount of water mass in underground aquifers for a region without ever stepping foot in the area. This type of technology is especially useful for data collections in dangerous areas such as Iraq and Syria and allows engineers to study the area regardless of conditions. The data that was collected through GRACE showed that in a period from 2003 to 2010 an area covering Iraq, Syria and part of Iran lost over 90 cubic kilometers or 73 million acre feet of water due to underground pumping. This number was greatly influenced when pumping skyrocketed during a 2007 drought. It was also noted that snow pack and soil drying accounted for a large percentage of surface water loss which seems to have caused necessary increased pumping. I feel as though this information is correct and accurate to what is happening in the Middle East. A group known as The Water Project who studies water loss and attempt to provide clean drinking water to those without also consider the water conditions Middle East requiring “global and immediate action.”  (http://thewaterproject.org/) Also, the use of the GRACE technology is not new and is proven not only in the region mentioned but the entire world. The fact that GRACE has been “online” and collecting accurate data since March 17th, 2002 lends to the data’s credibility. (http://science.nasa.gov/missions/grace/) While the article was well written I do feel it left several important notes. For one, the cause for drawing so much water wasn’t clear in the article. While irrigation was mentioned I feel as though further reporting on the activities of the individuals using the water should’ve been discussed more. Had this been done, it would’ve allowed the reader to speculate not only on the overall issue of water loss but on what can be done to curb the losses. Is the water being drawn to water lawns and aesthetically pleasing “extras” or is it required for farming on which the nation’s economy depends? A second area I would’ve like to see more discussion is how they calculated how much water loss came from snowpack melt, soils drying, human use etc. By not providing how they obtained and calculated their data in those specific areas takes away from the article’s credibility. If those calculations are off in the slightest, it could mean the water loss calculated could be off and incredible amount.

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Figure 1 – This is the image produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory illustrating the studied area and subsequent underground water loss.

The implications of this water loss are widespread and serious especially in the domain of economics. Water as a resource is extremely valuable as it provides the ability to survive. Without clean water, any society will at best be extremely limited in its ability to grow or even survive. If this water loss is allowed to continue the limited balance of power that exists in that region could shift dramatically as economies shift toward a water centric market. A water centric market would be an economic situation where those that have the water would control access to water therefore profiting economically from it as well as through the power associated with such a precious resource. A prime example of this can be seen in South Africa where controlled access to water during a drought lead to deaths. The Middle East is known for its violence and a dwindling resource required by all to survive will only escalate the already volatile situation. 

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