New open-access database aims to get water-scarce countries ‘more crop per drop’ – UN agency
Farmland along the banks of Rwanda's Lake Sake. Photo: FAO/Giulio Napolitano
24 August 2015 – At the start of the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden, the United Nations agriculture agency today announced that it would develop a new open-access data portal that uses satellite imagery to provide insights into more efficient and productive use of agricultural waters – helping water-scarce countries in the Near East and North Africa better manage the resource.
“Reporting on water productivity is lacking at country level in water scarce regions and this data will be key to creating sustainable agricultural systems in areas with scarce resources,” said Jippe Hoogeveen, project coordinator and technical officer in the Land and Water Division of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
According to an FAO press release, currently all countries in North Africa and the Near East suffer from severe water scarcity, with significant consequences for irrigated agriculture, the region’s largest water user – which is expected to intensify as climate change leads to more frequent and longer droughts, severely impacting food production.
The aim of the new data portal – to be developed in October – is to collect and analyze satellite information to improve land and water productivity and boost the sustainability of agricultural systems. All information will be openly available for countries and users who need it.
Mr. Hoogeveen elaborated: “Remote sensing satellite images offer governments near real-time information regarding the use of natural resources for food growth and production, making assessments and improvements to existing agricultural practices more efficient and cost effective.”
While remote sensing technologies have revolutionized the possibilities for assessing land and water productivity through greater coverage and data capture, many countries lack the capacity and resources to analyze and work with this data.
Among other things, FAO technical support will assist countries in monitoring land and water productivity, identifying productivity gaps, proposing solutions to reduce these gaps and contributing to a sustainable increase in agricultural production.
To allow experts to cross-check results at various levels and make appropriate recommendations for different settings, the new database will be developed at three spatial scales: the continental level over the whole of Africa and Near East; country and river basin level; and irrigation scheme level.
“Advanced information and communication technology will play a crucial role in all of this work,” said the project coordinator. “This information will empower those who need it, from SMS messaging for farmers working in water-scarce areas to country experts using more sophisticated applications to assess information on water basin levels.”
The four-year project is being financed by the Government of the Netherlands and implemented by FAO in collaboration with the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and other partners.
Globally, water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase for most of the last century, and an increasing number of regions are reaching the limit at which reliable water services can be delivered.
Today, agriculture uses 70 per cent of all freshwater withdrawals worldwide and up to 95 per cent in several developing countries.
Growing water scarcity is a major threat to future food security and poverty alleviation, especially in rural areas. In semi-arid regions, increasing numbers of rural poor see water entitlement and access for food production, livestock and domestic purposes to be just as critical as access to primary health care and education.
By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to be living in countries or regions with “absolute” water scarcity, and two thirds of the world population could be under “stress” conditions.
During World Water Week, FAO is also making presentations on its various regional water scarcity initiatives. It is currently leading two projects related to monitoring progresses for the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), including SDG 6, which concerns the world's water resources.
FAO Senior Land and Water Officer Jean-Marc Faurès noted that monitoring water productivity will ultimately enable countries to report on an SDG target, which is of paramount importance in water scarce areas, but also globally.