Artist’s concept of the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory, a joint international project of NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency that measures rain and snow.
Artist’s concept of the Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory, a joint international project of NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency that measures rain and snow. | Credit: NASA

Strengthening Climate Resilience from Space

How a 15-year partnership between USAID and NASA is helping partners avert disaster
By Pete Epanchin

At first glance, USAID and NASA seem like an unlikely pair. NASA’s satellites watch the world from above; USAID helps farmers around the world grow crops from the ground up. But through a 15-year partnership, we’re helping solve one of the greatest threats to Earth—the climate crisis—and simultaneously strengthening resilience against poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation. Together, we’re connecting space to village.

SERVIR, the joint program between USAID and NASA, uses satellite images from space to track climate shocks, like droughts, floods, and dramatic changes in water levels — all challenges that can devastate families and entire nations.

Through observations and data from space, USAID and NASA are tracking weather patterns in 50 countries, and working with local experts on the ground to ensure that these findings can best be leveraged to fit specific local needs so that families can take action ahead of a crisis.

Video URL

Gone in a flash

Take flooding as an example. In countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, flooding is a chronic challenge that has grown worse over time due to climate change — particularly flash floods, which are especially difficult to predict.

In Kathmandu, SERVIR is developing a 48-hour flash flood forecast for rivers in Nepal and Bangladesh. As this information gets into the hands of local partners, decision-makers on the ground can stay ahead of a potentially devastating flood and save lives and livelihoods. SERVIR is also making this vital information open to the public and into the hands of local change-makers through a mobile app and daily flood bulletins.

For example, every year, secondary school teacher Keshab Prasad Kadel used to watch floods and landslides inundate farming land and damage major infrastructure in his hometown of Dhading, a city northwest of Kathmandu. After seeing SERVIR technology accurately predict flooding from the Malekhu River near his hometown, he learned how to leverage the tool and kept track of potential flooding in small river stretches that border his hometown during last year’s monsoon season. He then relayed this vital information to officials and members of his community, saving property and possibly even lives.

Image

Cattle in Leinguere, Senegal cool down in a small, maintained pond while pastoralists tend to other business from the sparse shade trees.
Cattle in Leinguere, Senegal cool down in a small, maintained pond while pastoralists tend to other business from the sparse shade trees.

Chasing water

In West Africa, long dry seasons characterize the savannah landscape of northern Senegal’s Ferlo region, an area with a rich tradition of pastoralism. Herders depend on cattle, sheep, and goats for both their financial and food security, but increasingly fickle environmental conditions are making it difficult to raise these essential livestock. For example, while water and food for livestock are abundant during the rainy season, pastoralists rely on seasonal ponds during the dry season to keep their animals alive.

Unfortunately, climate change is causing increasingly shorter rainy seasons and drying up water sources. For example, in Niger a decade ago, a drought killed a quarter of the herd, which translated to a loss of more than $700 million for the country’s economy.

To ease this uncertainty, SERVIR is using data from a constellation of satellites to determine in near-real time where water can be found. Local partners work with community radio stations to broadcast this vital information so that pastoralists can chart the best course of migration in their search for water and pasture, keeping their livestock and way of life secure.

Forecasting for the future

In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, SERVIR is reducing the impact of extreme weather events, which contribute to the multifaceted drivers of irregular migration. Most recently, this technology was used in the devastating aftermath of back-to-back Hurricanes Iota and Eta — which affected millions of people and caused severe flooding, landslides, and damage.

Through SERVIR, NASA partnered with a regional disaster management agency to manage these shocks through flood mapping and forecasting. With NASA support, the regional disaster management agency was able to leverage technology to help a major hydroelectric dam in Honduras safely manage stormwater that had collected in the dam’s reservoir, preventing even greater flood damage in the region, which serves as the country’s main economic hub.

Scaling for impact

SERVIR’s technologies are replicable, bringing solutions to other regions facing similar challenges. The technology helping pastoralists track water in Senegal was adapted from SERVIR’s work in the Mekong region in southeast Asia, where USAID and NASA developed a surface water mapping tool to assess the risk of floods and impacts from existing and proposed dams.

From up above in space, we can foresee potentially devastating crises that were previously unknown in hard-to-access and remote areas with limited data on Earth. And we’re scaling this technology across the world to get ahead of these mounting risks, strengthening the climate resilience of vulnerable regions every day.

Image

Images from an International Space Station camera show how Glaciar San Quintin, the largest glacier in Chile’s Laguna San Rafael National Park, a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve, is rapidly shrinking, as are other glaciers in the region.
Images from an International Space Station camera show how Glaciar San Quintin, the largest glacier in Chile’s Laguna San Rafael National Park, a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve, is rapidly shrinking, as are other glaciers in the region.

Future-proofing Earth from space

Climate shocks are increasing in frequency and magnitude, and in many cases, responding in the aftermath of a devastating flood or drought means too many lives and livelihoods lost. From space, we can rapidly decipher the kind of life-saving details that would be nearly impossible to gather from Earth. At a time when tackling extreme weather events requires renewed action and commitment — such as what we’re seeing this week at the Leaders Summit on Climate — innovation and collaboration are vital to future-proofing our precious natural resources.


For 15 years, USAID and NASA have empowered more than 10,000 people in 50 countries, working closely with partners on the ground so that satellite data can be effectively leveraged at the village level.

SERVIR’s name is derived from the Spanish word meaning “to serve” — and as the climate crisis accelerates, this partnership will continue to serve the most vulnerable people to help them survive and thrive.

Video URL

This blog was originally published on USAID's Medium Page. 

Projects
SERVIR
Strategic Objective
Mitigation
Topics
Climate Change, Climate Risk Management, Climate Science, Partnership, Private Sector Engagement, Resilience
Region
Global

Pete Epanchin

Pete Epanchin is a climate change advisor with the Global Climate Change Office at the US Agency for International Development where he primarily works on climate change adaptation including the use of Earth observation data for improved decision making. Previously, at the EPA he helped to develop an accounting methodology for carbon dioxide emissions from biomass fuels. His scientific research has focused on species' responses to invasive species and, separately, to climate change.

More on the Blog

To address these challenges, USAID partnered with the Sustainable Ocean Fund (SOF), to make pioneering impact investments into marine and coastal projects and enterprises. The $132 million Fund invests in projects across Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific that aim to build resilience in coastal ecosystems and create sustainable economic growth and livelihoods in the blue economy.
The agriculture sector across the globe not only feeds the world’s population but it also provides nearly 27 percent of worldwide employment. Yet the sector faces significant sustainability challenges: it is estimated to contribute more than one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of agricultural activities and land use changes, and it consumes, on average, 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources.
Between 2014 and 2015, Jamaica experienced one of the worst seasons of drought in recent history. The impact on the Jamaican economy, especially rural livelihoods, was devastating. According to reports, the annual agricultural production declined by 30 percent from 2013 to 2014. This, along with brush fires, resulted in a $J1 billion ($6.5 million) loss for the economy.