Managing Africa’s Water from Space

Water is a vital component for human life, and one of the major problems facing the continent of Africa is the development of water resources. Water security remains a critical issue for millions of people in Africa. In order to combat these problems with water, initiatives using satellite technology through the European Space Agency (ESA) are hoping to make a positive influence. One of these initiatives is the TIGER program, which was launched in 2002, in order to provide geographical information from satellites so that African countries can use the data in order to manage the use of water.

These satellite observations are being used to not only show the impact on water resources but to also inform local authorities about the best way to manage them. Many African countries are struggling to deal with the impact of climate change and an increasing human population on the environment and figuring out how to provide access to drinking water, energy, and food. Moreover, many water sources cross national boundaries and can cause geo-political conflicts. The TIGER initiative is an example of how satellite Earth observation can provide an objective solution that transcends political boundaries in order to map and monitor water resources on a greater scale.

One of the areas that the TIGER program is monitoring is that of Africa’s Lake Chad. Located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Lake Chad serves as the main source of fresh water for thirty million people in the surrounding countries of Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, and Niger. Additionally, Lake Chad is the region’s source for fishing, irrigation, and drinking water for livestock, as well as supporting a lush biodiversity. Over the few decades, the lake has been shrinking. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Lake Chad suffered large losses due to an increase in the human demand for water and climate change. However, results presented from a recent TIGER workshop in Tunisia told a different story. Lake Chad is now showing an increase in the water surface extent.

Lake Chad water extent increase

Land cover maps of Lake Chad from 1985 and 2011, showing the doubling of water surface area. A large part of the new area covered by water was previously wetlands and other low terrain surface types, which are prone to flooding. Source: GeoVille

The TIGER program is also proving that satellites can help monitor the Earth’s resources in other areas. The satellite data also demonstrated the impact of war in the Darfur region of Sudan. Satellite imagery showed areas of increased vegetation in areas where people had abandoned agricultural areas because of being forced to leave their homes. The images then indicated those areas of land degradation where natural resources were being overused in Chad because of refugee camps for the displaced.

Furthermore, the TIGER initiative is sponsoring a new Water Observation Information System (WOIS) that integrates a large variety of information from satellites. This data includes water body mapping for irrigation and livestock, flood monitoring and forecasting, hydrological modeling for water management and sanitation planning, and lake water quality. Five African water authorities are currently using WOIS to inform their decision making. Since Africa has the least developed water resources, the help from ESA’s satellites and initiatives like TIGER is needed more than ever.

Vegetation degradation (red) and increase (green) along the Sudan–Chad border caused by the Darfur conflict. The increase in vegetation is linked to village destruction and forced population displacement, leading to abandonment of agriculture and cattle breeding. Some of the red areas coincide with the location of refugee camps in neighbouring Chad, showing overuse of natural resources, such as the collection of firewood. Source: DHI/GRAS.

Vegetation degradation (red) and increase (green) along the Sudan–Chad border caused by the Darfur conflict. The increase in vegetation is linked to village destruction and forced population displacement, leading to abandonment of agriculture and cattle breeding. Some of the red areas coincide with the location of refugee camps in neighbouring Chad, showing overuse of natural resources, such as the collection of firewood. Source: DHI/GRAS.

Reference: Monitoring and managing Africa’s water resources – European Space Agency



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