The Syrian civil war and subsequent refugee migration caused sudden changes in the region’s land use and freshwater resources, according to satellite data analysed by Stanford researchers. The findings are the first to demonstrate detailed water management practices in an active war zone, researchers said. Using satellite imagery processed in Google Earth Engine, researchers at Stanford University in the US determined that conflict in Syria caused agricultural irrigation and reservoir storage to decrease by nearly 50 per cent compared to pre-war conditions.
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“The water management practices in Syria have changed and that is visible from space,” said principal investigator Steven Gorelick. “The Syrian crisis has resulted in a reduction in agricultural land in southern Syria, a decline in Syrian demand for irrigation water and a dramatic change in the way the Syrians manage their reservoirs,” Gorelick said.
The study focused on impacts from 2013 to 2015 in the Yarmouk-Jordan river watershed, which is shared by Syria, Jordan and Israel. Using composite images of the 11 largest Syrian-controlled surface water reservoirs in the basin, researchers measured a 49 per cent decrease in reservoir storage.
Irrigated crops are greener than natural vegetation during the dry summer season. This characteristic was used to show Syria’s irrigated land in the basin had decreased by 47 per cent. Gorelick and his team looked at water management and land use on the Jordanian side of the Yarmouk basin and in Israel’s Golan Heights as a baseline for understanding areas unaffected by the refugee crisis.
“It is the first time that we could do large-scale remote sensing analysis in a war zone to actually prove a causal relation between conflict and water resources,” said Marc Muller, a postdoctoral researcher in Gorelick’s lab. The research sets a precedent for using remote sensing data to understand environmental impacts in war zones or other areas where information otherwise could not be collected.
Syria’s abandonment of irrigated agriculture, combined with the region’s recovery from a severe drought, caused increased Yarmouk River flow to downstream Jordan, one of the most water-poor countries in the world, researchers said. However, Jordan has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria since 2013, they said.
“It is slightly good news for Jordan, but it is not a big bonus compared to what Jordan has had to give up and sacrifice for the refugees,” Gorelick said. “Even in terms of providing water for the refugees, this transboundary flow is not compensation,” he said.
While experts speculate climate change can lead to conflict, it was interesting to examine Syria from a different perspective, said Jim Yoon, a PhD candidate at Stanford. The study was published in the journal.