Water for people, water for agriculture: using earth observations and networked sensors to end drought emergencies

Source(s): Agrilinks

By Evan Thomas, University of Colorado Boulder

The challenge

Millions of people living in the drought-prone Horn of Africa face persistent threat from a lack of safe, reliable, and affordable water year-round. The arid regions of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia are experiencing increasing frequency and severity of drought conditions. Drought emergencies occur when reduced rainfall, exacerbated in recent years by climate change, combined with limited community capacity and institutional failures cause dramatic reductions in access to water for people, livestock, and agriculture. These people are among the most marginalized communities in East Africa. This crisis results in catastrophic crop failures, public health stress, economic shocks, and displacement of people. The destabilizing impact of drought emergencies increases with each successive event, leading to vulnerability and insecurity in this complex region.

The solution: The Drought Resilience Impact Platform

Drought-driven humanitarian emergencies can be prevented if groundwater is reliably made available at strategic locations during cycles of water stress. The Drought Resilience Impact Platform (DRIP)’s comprehensive systems design integrates early detection and planning with proactive groundwater management to ensure water availability, thus enabling drought-prone communities to become effective managers in the prevention of these humanitarian crises. It replaces reactive and expensive short-term assistance measures like water trucking with a framework for drought resilience. Enacted within local institutional and governance framework, DRIP can direct adaptation responses, secure ongoing delivery of key services, and deliver assistance specifically when and where it is needed (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Drought Resilience Impact Platform theory of change: If there is timely water and food security monitoring coupled with drought forecasting to monitor water budgets under varying climatic conditions, and if water supply operation and maintenance is made reliable through pay-for-performance contracting, people will be able to access the water they need even during times of drought, ending drought-related emergencies.

The DRIP approach

In partnership with the SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) Hub, hosted by the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development in Kenya, we are linking in-situ data collection tools (like sensors on borehole wells) managed by our team and deployed in East Africa with remote sensing data sets to develop machine learning-supported, interpolated data products for localized rainfall, localized temperature, localized groundwater use, forecast groundwater demand, and localized land characteristics. Through data integration for drought forecasting, surface and ground water availability, and agricultural yield estimates, we will use these metrics to generate a new SERVIR ESA data service called the Groundwater Use & Demand Forecast, and will enhance existing services.

Here is what the workflow looks like:

Figure 2: Workflow for the Drought Resilience Impact Platform

We will disseminate our data products (see third column in the above Figure 2) to the Kenya National Drought Management Authority; the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy; the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, Climate Prediction, and Applications Center; and regional government partners. Estimates with our Groundwater Use and Demand Forecast Service will support local and national government-level drought response planning efforts, such as maintenance of groundwater boreholes, site selection for new boreholes, and pre-positioning of water trucking.

Empowering the vulnerable by increasing resilience to drought

DRIP focuses on serving many of the most vulnerable populations within sub-Saharan Africa — agriculturalists and pastoralists living on subsistence farming and livestock, who are prone to migration due to water and resource insecurity, and are often demographically marginalized ethnic groups. Preventable death and malnutrition, exacerbated by recurrent drought, hits hardest in the pastoral communities — UNICEF estimates that there are 19.5 million pastoral people in the Horn of Africa, of whom 40 percent survive on less than one dollar a day. USAID estimates that each for each $1 invested in resilience in areas of recurrent crises, nearly $3 will be saved in averted losses and humanitarian need. DRIP seeks to empower these communities to increase their drought resilience and water security, helping to preserve their way of life.

Our consortium

The DRIP project is led by CU Boulder’s Mortenson Center in Global Engineering with NASA and USAID SERVIR Applied Sciences Team, Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), and The Millenium Water Alliance. DRIP will operate through partnerships with the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy, Somaliland State Ministry of Water Resources Development and Kenya National Drought Management Authority. The Mortenson Center in Global Engineering combines education, research, and partnerships to positively impact vulnerable people and their environment by improving development tools and practice. Supported by USAID, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and others, the Center has successfully designed and deployed sensors that monitor and enable maintenance of water systems for over 3 million people yearly in the Horn of Africa.

For additional details on the Drought Resilience Impact Platform, see Thomas et al. 2020. Reducing drought emergencies in the Horn of Africa. Science of the Total Environment, 727: 138772.

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