We describe a robust methodology to detect and estimate the size of temporary wetlands using AVHRR satellite data within large areas (106 km2) of the arid zone. The methodology uses spectral matching and exclusion of salt surfaces to discriminate between water and non-water surfaces. The status of 115 lakes was used to evaluate the methodology. A classification accuracy of 98% was achieved for wetlands >120 ha, with accuracy of area estimates varying with the size and shape of individual lakes. Spectral matching of AVHRR data has methodological and cost advantages over the use of higher spatial resolution data for understanding changes in the distribution of water at broad scales.