High-resolution surface water dynamics in Earth’s small and medium-sized reservoirs

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Small and medium-sized reservoirs play an important role in water systems that need to cope with climate variability and various other man-made and natural challenges. Although reservoirs and dams are criticized for their negative social and environmental impacts by reducing natural flow variability and obstructing river connections, they are also recognized as important for social and economic development and climate change adaptation. Multiple studies map large dams and analyze the dynamics of water stored in the reservoirs behind these dams, but very few studies focus on small and medium-sized reservoirs on a global scale. In this research, we use multi-annual multi-sensor satellite data, combined with cloud analytics, to monitor the state of small (10–100 ha) to medium-sized (> 100 ha, excluding 479 large ones) artificial water reservoirs globally for the first time. These reservoirs are of crucial importance to the well-being of many societies, but regular monitoring records of their water dynamics are mostly missing. We combine the results of multiple studies to identify 71,208 small to medium-sized reservoirs, followed by reconstructing surface water area changes from satellite data using a novel method introduced in this study. The dataset is validated using 768 daily in-situ water level and storage measurements (r2 > 0.7 for 67% of the reservoirs used for the validation) demonstrating that the surface water area dynamics can be used as a proxy for water storage dynamics in many cases. Our analysis shows that for small reservoirs, the inter-annual and intra-annual variability is much higher than for medium-sized reservoirs worldwide. This implies that the communities reliant on small reservoirs are more vulnerable to climate extremes, both short-term (within seasons) and longer-term (across seasons). Our findings show that the long-term inter-annual and intra-annual changes in these reservoirs are not equally distributed geographically. Through several cases, we demonstrate that this technology can help monitor water scarcity conditions and emerging food insecurity, and facilitate transboundary cooperation. It has the potential to provide operational information on conditions in ungauged or upstream riparian countries that do not share such data with neighboring countries. This may help to create a more level playing field in water resource information globally.