Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on land use and transboundary freshwater resources

Edited by Peter H. Gleick, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, Oakland, CA, and approved November 1, 2016 (received for review August 27, 2016)
December 5, 2016
113 (52) 14932-14937

Significance

The notion that sudden impacts on shared international waters can be detected and quantified, even in a war zone, is important to scientists and policy makers, who have been stifled in the past by inaccessibility to such regions and the consequent inability to collect relevant data. Our study uses satellite imagery of war-torn Syria, showing how conflict and migration caused sudden reductions in Syrian agricultural land use and water use. An unexpected effect of the conflict was increased flow in the Yarmouk River to Jordan, which nonetheless remains one of the world’s most water-poor nations. The study illustrates that conflict and human displacement can significantly alter a basin’s water balance with dramatic effects on the transboundary partitioning of water resources.

Abstract

Since 2013, hundreds of thousands of refugees have migrated southward to Jordan to escape the Syrian civil war that began in mid-2011. Evaluating impacts of conflict and migration on land use and transboundary water resources in an active war zone remains a challenge. However, spatial and statistical analyses of satellite imagery for the recent period of Syrian refugee mass migration provide evidence of rapid changes in land use, water use, and water management in the Yarmouk–Jordan river watershed shared by Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Conflict and consequent migration caused ∼50% decreases in both irrigated agriculture in Syria and retention of winter rainfall in Syrian dams, which gave rise to unexpected additional stream flow to downstream Jordan during the refugee migration period. Comparing premigration and postmigration periods, Syrian abandonment of irrigated agriculture accounts for half of the stream flow increase, with the other half attributable to recovery from a severe drought. Despite this increase, the Yarmouk River flow into Jordan is still substantially below the volume that was expected by Jordan under the 1953, 1987, and 2001 bilateral agreements with Syria.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Deepthi Rajsekhar for estimates of water import volumes. We also thank the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the UPS Foundation for their support. Hydrological data were provided by Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation. Landsat data are distributed by the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC), located at US Geological Survey (USGS)/Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center (lpdaac.usgs.gov), and were accessed and processed using Google Earth Engine. The ASTER GDEM data product was retrieved from the online Global Data Explorer tool, courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration LP DAAC, USGS/EROS Center (gdex.cr.usgs.gov/gdex/). VIIRS Day/Night Band Cloud Free Composites and DMSP-OLS Nighttime Lights version 4 were obtained courtesy of the Earth Observation Group, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (ngdc.noaa.gov/eog/). PERSIANN monthly precipitation data were accessed on Google Earth Engine, courtesy of the Climate Data Record program of the NOAA. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant GEO/OAD-1342869 (to Stanford University). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. Postdoctoral fellowship support was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Supporting Information

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Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 113 | No. 52
December 27, 2016
PubMed: 27930317

Classifications

Submission history

Published online: December 5, 2016
Published in issue: December 27, 2016

Keywords

  1. remote sensing
  2. Landsat
  3. reservoir
  4. conflict
  5. irrigation

Acknowledgments

We thank Deepthi Rajsekhar for estimates of water import volumes. We also thank the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the UPS Foundation for their support. Hydrological data were provided by Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation. Landsat data are distributed by the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC), located at US Geological Survey (USGS)/Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center (lpdaac.usgs.gov), and were accessed and processed using Google Earth Engine. The ASTER GDEM data product was retrieved from the online Global Data Explorer tool, courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration LP DAAC, USGS/EROS Center (gdex.cr.usgs.gov/gdex/). VIIRS Day/Night Band Cloud Free Composites and DMSP-OLS Nighttime Lights version 4 were obtained courtesy of the Earth Observation Group, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (ngdc.noaa.gov/eog/). PERSIANN monthly precipitation data were accessed on Google Earth Engine, courtesy of the Climate Data Record program of the NOAA. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant GEO/OAD-1342869 (to Stanford University). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. Postdoctoral fellowship support was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

Authors

Affiliations

Marc François Müller1 [email protected]
Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556;
Jim Yoon
Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
Steven M. Gorelick
Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305;
Nicolas Avisse
Department of Civil and Water Engineering, Université Laval, Quebec, QC, Canada G1V 0A6
Amaury Tilmant
Department of Civil and Water Engineering, Université Laval, Quebec, QC, Canada G1V 0A6

Notes

1
To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: [email protected].
Author contributions: M.F.M., J.Y., and S.M.G. designed research; M.F.M. performed research; M.F.M. and N.A. analyzed data; and M.F.M., J.Y., S.M.G., and A.T. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on land use and transboundary freshwater resources
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    • Vol. 113
    • No. 52
    • pp. 14871-E8502

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