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