Nasa’s latest space mission is to help West African farmers improve food security

Data from satellites will be used to counter climate change that’s hitting staple crops in the region.

A drive by Nasa to stream climate data to West African countries using its Earth-observing satellites could boost crop production in a region hit hard by climate change, experts say.

Last week Nasa launched a hub in Niamey, Niger’s capital, that will use space-based observations to improve food security and better manage natural disasters, said Dan Irwin, manager of the Servir project.

The project, which will cover Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Niger, is one of four regional hubs worldwide funded by Nasa and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The model is demand-driven,” said Irwin, who describes Servir’s vision as “connecting space to village”. A Nasa study two years ago found that governments in the region either did not have good data, or were not using it, he added.

The Sahel is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change, where rising temperatures and increasingly erratic rainfall are wreaking havoc on farmers, disrupting food production and fuelling hunger and malnutrition.

“The whole livelihood along the Sahel depends on a few main crops, namely millet and sorghum,” said United Nations World Food Programme analyst Matthieu Tockert. “These crops are highly dependent on rainfall, so any data that allows for proper forecasts is key.”

Farmers in Senegal say that traditional methods of predicting the weather are no longer reliable. A programme launched last month by the country’s aviation and meteorology agency aims to solve the problem by sending texts to farmers.

“There is an immediate need to connect available science and technology to development solutions in West Africa,” said Alex Deprez, the director of USAID’s West Africa regional office.

In East Africa, Servir scientists have, since 2008, built a system to track water in streams and rivers and predict when and where droughts or floods will occur. They also created maps that show which land is the most fertile, and which areas risk erosion.

Servir could adopt similar programmes in West Africa, but the first step will be to identify the region’s most pressing needs, with a priority on improving food security, Irwin said. — Reuters

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