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By Gareth Willmer
In small island nations, the rising unpredictability of weather patterns is sending growing seasons off-kilter — imperiling the use of traditional on-the-ground knowledge about when best to plant crops.
“The changes have thrown that understanding out the door,” said Sunny Seuseu, climate information services officer at the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, or SPREP. “With the shift in the climate system, it’s really difficult to cultivate crops.”
Seuseu was speaking from the island nation of Vanuatu, where he says around 80% of farmers rely on this traditional knowledge to make decisions. Events there in 2015 reflect how problematic this now is, after a drought associated with one of the world’s strongest-ever El Niño events followed hot on the heels of an onslaught from cyclone Pam. This created issues with food and water shortages after the storm had already reduced communities’ resilience to further shocks.
Small island developing states, commonly referred to as SIDS, thus need innovative tools to mitigate such impacts for future food security, especially with figures putting the proportion of undernourished people in SIDS at over 60% above the global average.
In these often remote nations, part of the answer lies in satellites, especially as the technology improves and becomes more freely available. “We must look to new technologies that are emerging to provide us with new insights and solutions to food security issues we are facing,” Seuseu said. “I believe there’s huge potential for satellites to play a significant role.”
“We need local knowledge and agricultural understanding from farmers, drivers, government employees, and market operators. We can’t just repurpose what we’ve developed for Senegal and deploy it in Fiji.”
Although Seuseu says such technology is currently “underutilised” in the Pacific, he welcomes new initiatives that will help change this, such as the Commonwealth Climate Services Demonstrator and CommonSensing, a three-year project using satellite to boost climate resilience in Vanuatu, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands.
What is the International Partnership Programme?
The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme is a £152 million (US$199 million) multiyear program launched in 2015 that uses U.K. organizations’ space knowledge, expertise, and capability to provide a sustainable, economic, or societal benefit to low- and middle-income countries. It is funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund, a £1.5 billion fund that forms part of the U.K. government’s official development assistance commitment. CommonSensing is one such IPP.
Among the members is Sensonomic, which works on digitizing agriculture and is initially using data from sources including Landsat and Sentinel satellites to look at Fiji’s sugarcane sector.
For smallholder agriculture in SIDS, satellites can be used to more easily assess areas of a field where crops are growing well, and identify currently unused areas with conditions that look good for cultivation, said Sensonomic CEO and founder Anders Gundersen, as well as rapidly rank productivity across a large number of farms to help find sources of problems and pinpoint good practices.
But even without boosting yields, loss of produce can be minimized by using satellite technology to find better transport routes to market, and alternative ones if roads get cut off by floods via dirt tracks that have not been officially mapped. “Satellites are powerful in finding additional roads and infrastructure features that you can’t find on the ground — and these might be all-important,” he said.
He says sugar is a good start for training and “ground-truthing” satellites in Fiji, as an industry in which the country’s government and agricultural sector already have detailed historical data. He believes the learnings can then be transferred to other crops and geographies.
There is, however, a challenge in repurposing technology for other countries because of factors including differing temperatures, growing seasons, and crops — so CommonSensing is working with NGOs, in-country ministries, and farmers to ground-truth the data and understand local needs.
“We need local knowledge and agricultural understanding from farmers, drivers, government employees, and market operators. We can’t just repurpose what we’ve developed for Senegal and deploy it in Fiji,” Gundersen said. “Technology is a great help, but it’s not the only thing we should work with.”
Marcelo Rezende, a land-monitoring specialist at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, echoes the need for tailored services, as well as tools to get around the issue that SIDS may lack the technical capacity or computational power to process complex satellite data.
FAO, in collaboration with other actors, has developed a tool called Collect Earth, which enables land-use information to be gathered using high-resolution satellite images and big-data analysis provided through Google Earth Engine. First launched in 2013 to support an assessment of land use in Papua New Guinea, Collect Earth has since expanded globally and in terms of its range of functions as part of FAO’s Open Foris initiative, which provides free open-source data for environmental monitoring.
To assess land degradation at a national scale in small island developing states, Collect Earth has first been used in Cape Verde, but work has also been carried out in Antigua and Barbuda, and initial work in Sao Tome and Principe, and Samoa, with Mauritius and Seychelles on the roadmap too.
Rezende explains that people living and working in these regions can use Collect Earth themselves to assess data on land-use change over time with only limited training because it is geared towards simplicity rather than complex, highly skilled remote sensing. “If they know the land, they’re more than qualified to support the data-collection efforts,” he said.
In Cape Verde, Rezende said, estimates of forest area using Collect Earth were found to closely match those in the country’s national forest inventory, helping validate the data and back up its reliability for other types of land use too. Recent infrastructure projects to support irrigation were also found to have improved cropland productivity.
“I think the best output of this work is that this data is in the hands of the country and they feel it belongs to them,” Rezende said. He adds that Cape Verde is now lining up future “transformative” projects using the platform, with its learnings enabling it to better allocate resources to improve the landscape.
Smaller, cheaper fleets of satellites are also boosting tracking at organizations such as U.S. firm Planet — which has approximately 140 satellites capturing the whole of Earth’s landmass each day, including over 120 of its shoebox-sized Doves.
Andrew Zolli, vice president of global impact initiatives at Planet, said the company’s tools are “uniquely suited” for monitoring agricultural productivity and helping on-the-ground partners generate insights for farmers and information to underpin financial products, with its sensors using the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum that helps in detecting plants.
The ocean is also a vital food source for SIDS, as they are frequently located in coral reef areas that offer among the world’s most productive ecosystems — but these face unprecedented threats such as mass bleaching, pollution, and overfishing, with corals dying at an alarming rate.
The problem is, Zolli said, that the world has not had “any good mechanism for understanding, mapping, and monitoring the world’s reefs.”
But the game shifted with the launch late last year of the Allen Coral Atlas, described as the highest-resolution image of the world’s coral reefs ever captured and offering the first detailed maps showing the structure of five global reefs. This was created with the aid of satellite data that Planet supplied to U.S.-based firm Vulcan, founded by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Planet is now working with other project teams to produce real-time alerts for coral bleaching events, with the depth of information in the atlas being further developed over time. “It will be a repository of the highest-resolution, globally complete survey of the world’s coral reefs, in which we not only provide imagery, but are using scientific-grade artificial intelligence to classify every pixel of reef,” Zolli said.
Yet despite improvements in tech, challenges remain in using satellite effectively in SIDS. At Samoa’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, its CEO Tilafono David Hunter says that while he sees great promise in using satellite data to help mitigate weather impacts, plan cropping seasons, and show marine chlorophyll levels, there are still capacity issues.
“The main challenge for Samoa is the cost of necessary resources, such as capital and appropriately trained scientists and technicians, required to operate and maintain satellite technology sustainably,” he said.
Apart from other challenges with internet connectivity and computing capacity in remote islands to get the information into farmers’ hands, back in Vanuatu, Seuseu points out that in the Pacific there is limited access to formal or on-the-job training for satellite technologies.
In the Van-KIRAP project, launched last year and backed by the Green Climate Fund, SPREP is working with the Vanuatu government on tools to improve the use of climate information services in five sectors, including agriculture and fisheries. In this, he says, a policy review highlighted the need to strengthen institutions by creating sector coordinators as a focal point for building technical capacity — not just for satellite, but other technologies too.
While he says only about 2% of Van-KIRAP’s activity currently involves satellite, he expects this to grow to about 25% as the initiative matures, aided by learnings from projects such as CommonSensing. This gives the potential to use it in activities such as mapping seagrass areas — important as breeding habitats for fish — and crop and forest cover.
“It’s early days for us, but I think we will learn more and more as we take this journey in the project … and I think it will have a significant role to play in our fight against climate change,” Seuseu said.
Meanwhile, at the Satellite Applications Catapult, a member of CommonSensing, principal expertise lead Federica Moscato says improved data coordination would be a boost for SIDS. “A big challenge we can see is to centralise data,” she said. “At a national level, not all data on production is centrally held.”
At FAO, Rezende said that to aid this type of coordination, the organization tries to involve people across multiple industry sectors when it holds training for Collect Earth. And for use of more complex satellite information, he believes more South-South cooperation can be encouraged by getting people and organisations together at international meetings.
If this data can be harnessed, he believes it holds real promise for the future. “We’re moving towards an era where sensors are getting better everywhere,” Rezende said, paving the way for SIDS to use a fresh wave of products to monitor their land.
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