Middle Eastern fresh water disappearing fast | TG Daily

Posted February 13, 2013 – 03:10 by Kate Taylor

The Middle East has lost fresh water reserves equivalent to the entire Dead Sea over the last ten years, data from NASA satellites shows.

A team using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites found that, between 2003 and 2010, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 144 cubic kilometers of its total stored fresh water.

That’s almost as much as in the Dead Sea, with the loss caused mainly by the pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

“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,” says Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine.

“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.”

Famiglietti describes GRACE as ‘like having a giant scale in the sky’. Within a given region, rising or falling water reserves alter Earth’s mass, influencing how strong the local gravitational attraction is. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE reveals how much each region’s water storage changes over time.

“GRACE really is the only way we can estimate groundwater storage changes from space right now,” Famiglietti said.

The team calculated that about one-fifth of the water losses resulted from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly because of a drought in 2007. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another fifth of the losses. However, the majority of the water lost – around 90 cubic kilometers- was due to a loss of groundwater.

“That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability,” said Famiglietti.

After the 2007 drought, the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells – and private landowners a lot more.

“The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” said Famiglietti. “Those dry areas are getting dryer. The Middle East and the world’s other arid regions need to manage available water resources as best they can.”

Study co-author Matt Rodell of Goddard adds that it’s worth remembering that groundwater is being extracted unsustainably in parts of the United States, as well.

“Groundwater is like your savings account,” he says. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.”


Toxic Mud Spill Latest Insult to Polluted Danube River

Photograph by Darko Bandic, AP – A Hungarian fire fighter cleans a street flooded with toxic mud in Devecser, Hungary, in early October.

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published October 12, 2010

This story is part of a special news series on global water issues.

The recent reservoir failure that flooded several towns in Hungary with toxic red mud is the latest environmental insult to Europe”s Danube River. But it is not the first, nor the worst, disaster of its kind, experts say. (See photos of the mud spill.)

And unless steps are taken to safeguard similar industrial plants and mining facilities around the world, these kinds of accidents will continue to happen, they warn.

On October 4, a so-called tailing dam that held waste products, including arsenic and mercury, from the Ajkai Timfoldgyar aluminum-processing plant in the town of Ajka, Hungary, collapsed. This released an estimated 184 million gallons (697 million liters) of highly alkaline red mud into the Marcal River and nearby towns, killing at least eight people. The toxic flood reached the Danube River—Europe’s second-largest river—last Thursday, sparking fears of downstream contamination.

The Degraded Danube

Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the spill the country”s biggest ecological disaster. But other government officials say there has been no serious impact on the Danube”s wildlife because the sludge”s toxic substances have been safely diluted by the river—a claim that Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been quick to question.

“To say it”s not creating any environmental impact at all would be misleading, but whether those impacts are devastating, it doesn”t appear that they are,” said Jim Kuipers, a mining-engineering consultant based in Butte, Montana.

The Hungary spill is the latest in a long list of environmental problems affecting the Danube River, including pollution from cities and industry and pesticides and chemical runoff from farms.

“It”s sort of like having a bad backache and then having your kid jumping on you,” said Emily Stanley, a freshwater scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It”s an acute injury to a chronically stressed system.”

One of the biggest threats facing the Danube today is human alterations to the river made for navigation purposes, according to a 2004 European Commission report. Projects to deepen, dam, or straighten the river and remove “bottlenecks” to vessel passage are changing the river”s traditional floodplain landscape and water flow into deltas, as well as destroying wetlands and other protected habitats, according to the environmental nonprofit WWF.

There are currently projects underway to restore the Danube”s floodplains, and a recent plan by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) aims to halt the illegal dumping of hazardous materials into the river.

Making Mining Safer?

The total discharge from the dam failure in Hungary is nearly equal to the 200 million gallons (750 million liters) of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the leaking BP oil well this year. But comparing the two disasters is neither fair nor accurate, Kuipers said.

“The immediate devastation of this dam failure is in a relatively small area, and we haven”t seen huge widespread ecological impacts from it,” he said.

“But in the Gulf, the widespread impacts are pretty much indisputable, and it”s going to cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up. It”s not going to cost tens of billions of dollars to deal with the ecological impact of this spill.”

But even if the environmental costs from the tailing-dam spill are still unclear, the toll in human life is already too high, Kuipers said.

“If only one person is killed, it”s one person too many,” he added. “It points to very lax [dam-building] standards in the country as a whole.”

Hungary is not unique in this regard, however, said the University of Wisconsin’s Stanley.

“In Eastern Europe in particular, there are a lot of these dams and facilities that are not receiving any kind of oversight any more,” she said. “The money is short and the government has just walked away.”

Some experts estimate that the rate of tailing-dam failures worldwide is nearly ten times higher than that of typical water dams—and with many of those dams located near rivers and streams, the potential for environmental damage to waterways is high.

For example, if the Akja aluminum plant tailings contained cyanide instead of less toxic arsenic and mercury, the impact on wildlife could have been much worse.

In 2000, just such a spill occurred in Romania when a tailing dam from a gold mine burst, spilling cyanide-laced water into the Tisza and Danube rivers and killing up to 80 percent of aquatic life along some stretches.

Scientists and environmental groups worry that as mining projects grow larger, the tailing dams built to serve them will pose increasingly larger threats should they fail.

For example, a tailing dam proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, would be among the largest dam of any kind in the world. If that dam were to break, “the scale of what happened in Hungary will seem like child”s play,” said Alan Septoff, research director of Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington, D.C.

Another concern is the large number old tailing-dams that are aging without proper maintenance or repair.

“Dams are like baby boomers,” the University of Wisconsin”s Stanley said. “They get old, they age, and they begin to show signs of deterioration. Without inspection and regular repairs and maintenance, I think it”s highly likely that we”ll see more of these [failures] in the future.”

Fortunately, the mining industry has demonstrated that it’s capable of change, she said. The bad news is that it has sometimes required a catastrophe to do so. For example, in 2008, a tailing dam rupture at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee released more than 1.1 billion gallons (6.8 billion gallons) of coal fly ash flurry—a byproduct of coal combustion—into the Emory River.

“As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others immediately undertook an evaluation of all similar facilities in the United States,” Kuipers said.

“In the same way, the [Hungary spill] is a call for similar facilities throughout the world to undergo inspection and change their operational situation to prevent this type of event from occurring.”

Stanley is similarly hopeful. “Maybe this is a difficult thing for Hungary, but a wake-up call or the rest of the world about managing these wastes,” she said.


Huge Parts of World Are Drying Up: Land ''''Evapotranspiration'''' Taking Unexpected Turn

The soils in large areas of the Southern Hemisphere, including major portions of Australia, Africa and South America, have been drying up in the past decade, a group of researchers conclude in the first major study to ever examine “evapotranspiration” on a global basis. (Credit: iStockphoto/Domenico Pellegriti)

The soils in large areas of the Southern Hemisphere, including major portions of Australia, Africa and South America, have been drying up in the past decade, a group of researchers conclude in the first major study to ever examine “evapotranspiration” on a global basis.

Most climate models have suggested that evapotranspiration, which is the movement of water from the land to the atmosphere, would increase with global warming. The new research, published online this week in the journal Nature, found that””s exactly what was happening from 1982 to the late 1990s.

But in 1998, this significant increase in evapotranspiration — which had been seven millimeters per year — slowed dramatically or stopped. In large portions of the world, soils are now becoming drier than they used to be, releasing less water and offsetting some moisture increases elsewhere.

Due to the limited number of decades for which data are available, scientists say they can””t be sure whether this is a natural variability or part of a longer-lasting global change. But one possibility is that on a global level, a limit to the acceleration of the hydrological cycle on land has already been reached.

If that””s the case, the consequences could be serious.

They could include reduced terrestrial vegetation growth, less carbon absorption, a loss of the natural cooling mechanism provided by evapotranspiration, more heating of the land surface, more intense heat waves and a “feedback loop” that could intensify global warming.

“This is the first time we””ve ever been able to compile observations such as this for a global analysis,” said Beverly Law, a professor of global change forest science at Oregon State University. Law is co-author of the study and science director of the AmeriFlux network of 100 research sites, which is one major part of the FLUXNET synthesis that incorporates data from around the world.

“We didn””t expect to see this shift in evapotranspiration over such a large area of the Southern Hemisphere,” Law said. “It is critical to continue such long-term observations, because until we monitor this for a longer period of time, we can””t be sure why this is occurring.”

Some of the areas with the most severe drying include southeast Africa, much of Australia, central India, large parts of South America, and some of Indonesia. Most of these regions are historically dry, but some are actually tropical rain forests.

The rather abrupt change from increased global evapotranspiration to a near halt in this process coincided with a major El Nino event in 1998, the researchers note in their report, but they are not suggesting that is a causative mechanism for a phenomenon that has been going on for more than a decade now.

Greater evapotranspiration was expected with global warming, because of increased evaporation of water from the ocean and more precipitation overall. And data indeed show that some areas are wetter than they used to be.

However, other huge areas are now drying out, the study showed. This could lead to increased drought stress on vegetation and less overall productivity, Law said, and as a result less carbon absorbed, less cooling through evapotranspiration, and more frequent or extreme heat waves.

Some of the sites used in this study are operated by Law””s research group in the central Oregon Cascade Range in the Metolius River watershed, and they are consistent with some of these concerns. In the last decade there have been multiple years of drought, vegetative stress, and some significant forest fires in that area.

Evapotranspiration returns about 60 percent of annual precipitation back to the atmosphere, in the process using more than half of the solar energy absorbed by land surfaces. This is a key component of the global climate system, linking the cycling of water with energy and carbon cycles.

Longer term observations will be needed to determine if these changes are part of decadal-scale variability or a longer-term shift in global climate, the researchers said.

This study was authored by a large group of international scientists, including from OSU; lead author Martin Jung from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany; and researchers from the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Switzerland, Princeton University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, Harvard University, and other groups and agencies.

The regional networks, such as AmeriFlux, CarboEurope, and the FLUXNET synthesis effort, have been supported by numerous funding agencies around the world, including the Department of Energy, NASA, National Science Foundation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Oregon State University, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.

Journal Reference:

  1. Martin Jung, Markus Reichstein, Philippe Ciais, Sonia I. Seneviratne, Justin Sheffield, Michael L. Goulden, Gordon Bonan, Alessandro Cescatti, Jiquan Chen, Richard de Jeu, A. Johannes Dolman, Werner Eugster, Dieter Gerten, Damiano Gianelle, Nadine Gobron, Jens Heinke, John Kimball, Beverly E. Law, Leonardo Montagnani, Qiaozhen Mu, Brigitte Mueller, Keith Oleson, Dario Papale, Andrew D. Richardson, Olivier Roupsard, Steve Running, Enrico Tomelleri, Nicolas Viovy, Ulrich Weber, Christopher Williams, Eric Wood, Sönke Zaehle, Ke Zhang. Recent decline in the global land evapotranspiration trend due to limited moisture supply. Nature, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/nature09396


Solys sun shading system collects rainwater for your garden

By Sukhmani

Designer Fabrice Bardon has envisaged a sun shading system that also doubles as a mist and rainwater collector. Dubbed as Solys, the concept is based on promoting a water economy through both public and personal initiative. Suitable for installation in parks and private gardens, the system can be assembled on the spot. The Solys supports a concave umbrella at the top which collects morning mist and rainwater to fulfill your garden watering needs.

sun shade water collector 2

Cheers Fabrice Bardon!


Invention Awards: A Box That Keeps Plants Hydrated in the Desert

Thinking Inside the Box Pieter Hoff is testing the Groasis Waterboxx on grapevines at Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley, California, vineyard. If successful, it could save the winery more than 145,000 gallons of water per acre a year. John B. Carnett

A box that quenches thirsty plants without irrigation

By Corey Binns

Dutch flower exporter Pieter Hoff often spent nights in his beloved lily fields to monitor them. One evening, he noticed that the first droplets of morning condensation were collecting on the leaves of his lilies well before midnight.

Invention: Groasis Waterboxx
Inventor: Pieter Hoff
Cost: $7.1 million
Time: 7 years
Is It Ready Yet? 1 2 3 4 5

The plants lost heat to the air at night, and the cool surface of the leaves sucked water droplets from the warm, humid air. Nature’s watering system, Hoff thought, is incredibly efficient. So in 2003, he sold his business and began developing a planter that could capture water the same way plants do and foster saplings in the harshest conditions.

Today, one third of the world’s population lives where water is scarce or of poor quality, a number that’s expected to jump to two thirds by 2025. Making matters worse, in some areas deforestation and overfarming have led to eroded soil that can no longer support many crops. Hoff designed his Groasis Waterboxx with this in mind—it’s a plant incubator that’s made from plastic or a biodegradable material and designed to cool faster than the night air, like his lilies. The box is coolest at its top, the part that has the most contact with the open air. Water condenses on the cover and flows down into a small holding tank, where it’s trapped, along with any rainwater. The collected water and the box itself keep the plant and its roots hydrated and protected.

How the Groasis Waterboxx Works: Water condenses on the box’s cool top, collects in a tank, and drips into the soil to hydrate the plant.  Paul Wootton

At the same time, a candle-like wick on the bottom of the box slowly drips small doses of the water into the soil and root system underneath, providing enough for the plant’s first year of life but still leaving the roots thirsty enough to grow strong and deep. The box can easily be lifted up off the ground, over the top of the plant, and reused.
In 2006 Hoff took 25 Waterboxxes to Morocco’s Sahara desert, and after a year, 88 percent of the trees he treated had green leaves, while 90 percent of those watered weekly (the traditional local method) died under the scorching sun. He is conducting more experiments with 20,000 Waterboxxes in difficult terrains in places like Pakistan and Ecuador this year.

Hoff is hoping to recruit people to buy a few Waterboxxes from his Web site (groasis.com) to see how the invention works in other regions he hasn’t reached. “Everywhere you look, there’s space to plant,” he says. “But I can’t do this alone.”

See how the Waterboxx works in detail here.


Hand Washing Wipes Away Regrets?

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Cleaning removes the need to justify a tough choice, study says.

Rachel Kaufman

for National Geographic News

Published May 6, 2010

If you’re trying to clear your head after making a tough choice, you should wash your hands, new research suggests.

Aside from hygiene, the simple act of hand washing seems to “wipe away” the traces of decisions that leave a person feeling conflicted, said study co-author Spike W. S. Lee, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Michigan.

After making hard choices, people tend to justify their decisions to make themselves feel better, Lee explained. (Related: “Brain Region for Overcoming Fear, Anxiety Found.”)

“You want to feel that you made the right choice, so you justify it by thinking about the positive features” of your decision, he said. This process is called postdecisional dissonance.

But when people in the study washed their hands after making such a choice, they no longer felt a subconscious need to rationalize.

“Our physical experience actually influences our mental experience,” Lee said. (Video: the science of stress.)

Wiping the Slate Clean

To test the effects of washing, Lee and co-author Norbert Schwarz asked student volunteers to participate in what they thought was a consumer survey.

One group of 40 students was asked to rank ten music CDs in order of preference. The students were then offered a gift: Take home either your fifth- or sixth-ranked CD.

Once they’d made a decision, some students opted to evaluate a liquid hand soap by washing their hands, while others just looked at the bottle.

The students who didn’t wash their hands later ranked their chosen CDs higher than they had before—a classic example of postdecisional dissonance.

But students who did wash up ranked the ten CDs in basically the same order as before.

The researchers conducted a similar survey in which they asked 85 people to chose a jam without tasting it first. People who didn’t use an antiseptic wipe expected their chosen jam to taste better than the rejected one.

Those who used the wipe thought the jams would taste about the same.

It’s as if hand-washing in any form “wipes the slate clean” and removes the residual feelings and rationalizations associated with the choice, Lee said.

(Related: “‘Undecided’ Voters’ Minds Already Made Up, Study Says.”)

Psychology of Dirty Socks

Next, the researcher wants to look into whether this psychological phenomenon extends into other areas of cleanliness.

“There are these baseball players who have lucky socks that they don’t wash. Why is that?” Lee asked.

“Maybe there’s the belief that there’s positive particles of luck that you don’t want to remove.”

The hand-washing research will be published in this week’s issue of the journal Science.


Underground “Fossil Water” Running Out

Pipes are put in place for a Libyan water transfer project.  Photograph by Thomas Hartwell, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Published May 6, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic’s Freshwater website.

In the world’s driest places, “fossil water” is becoming as valuable as fossil fuel, experts say.

This ancient freshwater was created eons ago and trapped underground in huge reservoirs, or aquifers. And like oil, no one knows how much there is—but experts do know that when it’s gone, it’s gone. (See a map of the world’s freshwater in National Geographic magazine.)

“You can apply the economics of mining because you are depleting a finite resource,” said Mike Edmunds, a hydrogeologist at Oxford University in the Great Britain.

In the meantime, though, paleowater is the only option in many water-strapped nations. For instance, Libya is habitable because of aquifers—some of them 75,000 years old—discovered under the Sahara’s sands during 1950s oil explorations.

The North African country receives little rain, and its population is concentrated on the coasts, where groundwater reserves are becoming increasingly brackish and nearing depletion.

Since Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi launched his Great Man-Made River Project in the 1980s, an epic system of pipes, reservoirs, and engineering infrastructure is being built. It will be able to pump from some 1,300 paleowater wells and move 230 million cubic feet (6.5 million cubic meters) of H2O every day.

But while fossil water can fill critical needs, experts warn, it’s ultimately just a temporary measure until conservation measures and technologies become status quo.

Radioactive Worries

Engineers in Jordan hope that the country’s large fossil-water resources can help stem its chronic water shortage.

They envision a system that can move 3.5 billion cubic feet (99 million cubic meters) of water each year over a mostly uphill, 200-mile-long (320 kilometer-long) stretch from the remote southern desert to the capital city of Amman.

The U.S. $600 million project aims to tap Jordan’s last primary water reserve, the Disi aquifer, on the border with Saudi Arabia.

But the project has encountered an unexpected stumbling block. The Disi’s fossil water was recently found to contain 20 times the radiation levels considered safe for drinking. The water is contaminated naturally by sandstone, which has slowly leached radioactive contaminants over the eons.

Geochemist and water-quality expert Avner Vengosh of Duke University, one of the scientists who first discovered the problem, said the Disi’s situation is not unusual.

Radiation contamination has been found in Israel, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, and Libya, Vengosh said.

Fortunately, radiation contamination can be fixed through a simple water-softening process, though it does cost money and creates radioactive waste that must be disposed of properly, he noted.

Troubled Waters

Bringing fossil water to the surface may cause other water quality issues. When aquifers are depleted, they can be subject to an influx of surrounding contaminants such as saltwater—a particular problem near coastal areas.

Also, like oil fields, depleting fossil water aquifers too quickly can reduce underground pressures and render large quantities of water essentially irretrievable.

Like the Jordanians, the Saudis already draw water for drinking and agriculture from the Disi, which Saudis call the Saq aquifer.

Saudi Arabia has also attempted tapping fossil waters. In 2008 a long-running program to sustain a nascent wheat industry with fossil water was scrapped; it simply sucked up too much rare water. The government intends to rely entirely on wheat imports by 2016, experts say.

(Learn more about global agriculture’s thirst for water.)

Is That Fossil Water You’re Drinking?

Oxford’s Mike Edmunds said desert nations are only the obvious users of fossil water. In fact, many people may be using it, and using it up, without knowing.

(See: “Vast Buried ‘Fossil Lake’ Reported in Darfur.“)

Globally, wells are often drilled to about 320 feet (100 meters), Edmunds said. “Quite possibly only the top couple of meters of that are recent water. It’s pretty obvious in Saudi Arabia or Libya, but that may be the case even in many places that aren’t particularly arid.

“People think about quantity when they are pumping, they don’t ask about renewability as much—and that’s the big issue.”

Though determining the vintage of such water isn’t easy, said Duke’s Vengosh, telltale signatures can help: Scientists look for  radioactive isotopes that have been present in Earth’s atmosphere only since humans initiated the nuclear era.

“In a very arid region one could argue that it doesn’t matter” how old the water is, Vengosh said. “But in semi-arid areas, the ability to delineate between fossil water and replenished groundwater is always important.”

Testing the Waters With New Technologies

Technological advances are also helping scientists get a handle on just how much water can be found in a given locale.

For instance, the European Space Agency’s AQUIFER project uses satellite imagery to estimate water resources from space and help aid transborder management, according to geophysicist Stefan Saradeth.

The team examined parts of the Sahara and Sahel deserts, using proxies such as irrigation patterns, crop patterns, and changes in soil after pumping water.

“If there’s exploitation going on in terms of water or hydrocarbons, you see a minute lowering of the land surface, which we can measure from space on a millimeter scale,” Saradeth said.

Such water-availability information is intended to help nations work together and share a critical resource.

“Every country can look beyond its own borders and see what’s going on,” he said.

Other technologies can measure fossil water reserves more directly. In northern India, where New Delhi and Jaipur are draining fossil-water reserves along with water recharged by the annual monsoons, scientists used NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) to measure aquifer use.

When underground reservoir levels change, they slightly alter Earth’s gravitational field—just enough to be detected by GRACE satellites 300 miles (480 kilometers) above the surface. That data is used to map water use. In northern India, they produced a disturbing picture.

The NASA study found that humans are using more water than rains can replenish, and area groundwater levels declined by an average of one foot (30 centimeters) per year between 2002 and 2008.

(Explore an interactive on our hidden water use.)

Time—and Water—Running Out

In other nations the crisis is far more immediate—especially in Yemen, said Oxford’s Mike Edmunds. The Middle Eastern country depends on fossil water—but can’t expect to do so for much longer, according to Edmunds. “The Sana’a Basin is down to its last few years of extractable water,” he said.

Worsening the situation is Yemen’s tenuous government, shaky economy, and role as a haven for terrorists.

No one knows what will happen when it runs out—but Yemen’s fossil water will soon be a thing of the past.