Satellites Show How Major Reservoirs Are Drying Up Around the World

Gif: World Resources Institute

Climate change could make drought a way of life in certain parts of the world. Though the prospect of “Day Zero” in Cape Town is being staved off, it’s far from the only city to suffer through a water crisis right now.


In a new report, the World Resources Institute (WRI) highlighted four other regions dealing with shrinking reservoirs, including time lapse satellite imagery that starkly shows the water woes. The report shows how varying combinations of weather, infrastructure, management and changing land use have decimated water resources in Morocco, Spain, India, and Iraq. How policymakers deal with the changes will offer a preview of the choices other cities will be forced to make in the future.

In Iraq, the report looked at the Mosul Dam, which has shrunk 60 percent since 1999, including a precipitous decline in the past few years. It’s one of the most important dams in the Middle East, generating electricity for 1.7 million and support farming across the region. It also provides drinking water, and is a crucial flood control chokepoint. 

The recent dip is largely due to a series of dams being built upstream by Turkey on the Tigris River, which the dam holds back. Those dams have reduced flows up to 80 percent, and created tension in a region already on the edge. The water woes aren’t likely to let up, according to WRI:

And Iraq’s water stress, an indicator of competition for water among users, is set to increase due to growing populations and climate change. It’s likely that struggles surrounding water shortages will continue in this arid nation

The dam is also structurally unsound and its collapse could kill an estimated 1.5 million people, adding another problem that needs to be shored up.

In Morocco, a different set of circumstances has transpired to drain Al Massira, the country’s second-largest reservoir, by more than 60 percent in the past three years alone. The region was hit by the worst drought in 30 years in 2016, according to WRI. That was followed by a delayed rainy season in 2017 that led Morocco’s king to ask people to pray for rain.


Agriculture accounts for a huge portion of Morocco’s GDP, and the 2016 drought contributed to a 70 percent drop in grain production that year. The reservoir also provides water for cities, including the country’s largest, Casablanca. Marrakesh—Morocco’s fourth-biggest city—will start sipping from the Al Massira later this year, putting even more stress on dwindling reserves.

Meanwhile in India, the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir has dipped so low that the state government of Gujarat has stopped letting 1 million farmers use it for irrigation. And in Spain, WRI writes that the “Buendia Dam shrunk by 60 percent over the last five years. Levels this low were last seen in 2006, when the country was going through its worst drought in 60 years.” El Pais has called the current dry stretch the “drought from hell,” as it’s led to a 58 percent dip in hydroelectric power generation.


In the developed world, water shortages can be dramatic. In the the developing world, they can be the difference between life and death. Or as a 2017 CNA report on water, instability, and conflict signed off on by 15 retired military leaders bluntly put it: “Water stress can empower violent extremist organizations and place stable governments at risk.”

With dry areas like Iraq and Morocco expected to get drier as the climate changes, there will only be less water to go around unless it’s managed properly. And the clock is ticking.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.



All these rich white men saying climate change doesn’t exist. All these people that will be on the front lines of it are for the most part poor brown folks. But perhaps I’m just paranoid to draw a correlation between the two.