'Middle East has lost 144 cubic km of water'

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Washington, Feb 13 (IANS) The Middle East has lost 144 cubic km of water between 2003 and 2010, nearly equal to the staggering volume of the Dead Sea, show data provided by the NASA satellites.

Four countries of the region along the Tigris and Euphrates - Turkey upstream to Syria, Iran and Iraq below - alone account for the unprecedented loss. The Middle East is strained by the rapid loss of critical water reserves and mounting political tensions.

University of California-Irvine scientists and colleagues say 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," they say, the journal Water Resources Research reports.

Water management is a complex issue in the Middle East, "a region that is dealing with limited water resources and competing stakeholders," says Katalyn Voss, water policy fellow with the California's Centre for Hydrologic Modeling at Irvine, who led the study, according to a California statement.

Turkey has jurisdiction over the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters, as well as the reservoirs and infrastructure of its Southeastern Anatolia Project, which dictates how much water flows downstream into Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Unable to conduct measurements on the ground in the politically unstable region, researchers used data from space, provided by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, to uncover the extent of the problem.

They found that 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.

GRACE is "like having a giant scale in the sky. Whenever you do international work, it's exceedingly difficult to obtain data from different countries," says Jay Famiglietti, principal study investigator and professor of Earth system science at California.

"For political, economic or security reasons, neighbours don't want each other to know how much water they're using. In regions like the Middle East, where data are relatively inaccessible, satellite observations are among the few options," he adds.