Food security – the consistent availability and affordability
of food – is a basic human need, yet it remains elusive for
billions of people around the world. The United Nations’
2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report,
released in July, paints a grim picture of this reality:
in 2020, nearly 1 in 3 people globally did not have enough
to eat, up by more than 300 million people from the
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt food systems
and supply chains on a global scale, but the heart of the
problem – and the solutions to it – are far more diverse
than any single factor. In Kenya, climate change, water
shortages, and land degradation jeopardize crops and rangelands.
In Southeast Asia, rising temperatures, increasingly variable
weather, and low water levels along the Mekong River threaten
livelihoods and food production. In Nepal, areas reliant on
rain-fed agriculture are extremely susceptible to drought,
a phenomenon becoming more frequent in an ever-warming climate.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges;
however, each region has a common ally: a fleet of Earth
observing satellites working around the clock to take measurements
of everything from snow melt and soil moisture to land cover
and plant health. This data is the ultimate tool in building
capacity within food systems – and is often the difference
between anticipating drought with enough time to prepare or
losing crops to lack of water.
Because each region’s infrastructure and challenges are unique,
the trickier task is getting relevant data into the hands of
the people who need it and in a way that is easily accessible.
A joint NASA-USAID initiative called SERVIR is paving the way to
do just that. The goals of the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) and NASA complement each
other well: NASA uses the unique vantage point of space to
look back at our home planet while USAID, working in over
100 countries, understands development needs from the
In addition to this expertise, SERVIR partners with leading
regional organizations around the world to meet specific
“Our model is very different than many traditional projects,”
said Dan Irwin, SERVIR’s Global Program Manager based at
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Rather than building something and expecting it to be
adopted, we collaborate hand-in-hand with people in the
countries where we work to identify needs and implement
sustainable solutions together.”
SERVIR works in more than 50 countries through five regional
hubs. The hubs are entirely staffed by local experts, and
each have their own partnerships with organizations working
toward the same goals. What services and day-to-day
operations look like depends on the specific needs
identified and infrastructure present in each region.
Eastern and Southern Africa
Lilian Ndungu, Agriculture and Food Security Lead for
SERVIR’s Eastern and Southern Africa hub, wears many hats.
On any given day, she may go into the field in Kenya to
collect data, consult with high level government officials
on the co-development of services that improve food security,
or head into the office to work on advocacy, technical
program development and training programs.
More than half of the working population in the region
works in agriculture in some capacity, mainly on small,
family-run farms. Most of these farms are not irrigated
and instead rely on rain, making them especially vulnerable
to changes in climate and water availability.
With the right information, farmers and local governments
can be proactive rather than reactive in their response to
these challenges, and in doing so, improve food security.
It is this information that Ndungu and SERVIR aim to provide.
The Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development
(RCMRD) in Kenya, which hosts SERVIR’s Eastern and Southern
Africa hub, helps bridge data and science with decision makers
to support decision making processes that reduce risk.
“One project that has had an impact on food security in East
Africa is our crop monitoring project,” Ndungu said. “Crop
monitors are web-based portals that make it easy for non-technical
people to access observational tools that incorporate satellite
and ground data in order to make better agricultural decisions.”
Ndungu has lead the integration of these crop monitoring tools,
developed by NASA Harvest researchers at the University of
Maryland in close partnership with agricultural experts of the
GEOGLAM Crop Monitor initiative, into crop monitor systems
in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
The tools – which incorporate satellite data on vegetation
conditions, soil moisture, rainfall, and land use – produce
localized maps of where plants are growing and how healthy
they are. They can also indicate where and to what extent
drought conditions may become problematic.
While the crop monitors are a success story, getting to the
point where tools and services like this are widely implemented
and sustainable – which is the ultimate goal –takes time.
“It takes a high level of engagement. You cannot just call
someone in the government today and then call again in six
months and expect to have made progress,” Ndungu said. “But
through consistent communication and consultation, often over
several years, you end up co-creating something that meets
their needs and the buy-in and commitment to make it happen.”
In some areas, the SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa hub is
also working to get satellite and crop health data incorporated
into crop insurance programs. Rather than having to inspect
farms in person, stakeholders can assess the health of
farms – and quickly identify areas in need of financial
assistance – without needing to send staff into the field.
In Kenya, this little bit of automation has already reduced
the cost of providing crop insurance by 70%.
The Lower Mekong Basin
Nearly 5,000 miles away, in Southeast Asia’s Lower Mekong
basin, food security and economic prosperity are largely
contingent on a crop dubbed “white gold” by farmers: rice.
In 2020 alone, the region -- which includes Cambodia, Laos,
Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam -- exported $6.8 billion
dollars’ worth of it.
“Rice is a very water-intensive crop. You need lots of water
to grow it,” said Susantha Jayasinghe, Agriculture and Food
Security Lead for SERVIR’s Mekong hub, hosted at the Asian
Disaster Preparedness Center in Thailand. “What we learned
from the countries and agencies working closely on agriculture
and food security in the region is that they didn’t have a
good information system to monitor and forecast drought and
water availability, so this is where we began.”
Working closely with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and
other regional and national partners, SERVIR-Mekong brought
together satellite imagery, ground-based measurements, and
local expertise to produce water resource maps, drought
forecasts, and other online data resources. These products
help the MRC and other agencies prepare for and respond
effectively to drought. They’re available at the regional
level in several Lower Mekong countries and at the provincial
level in Vietnam.
Moving forward, SERVIR-Mekong plans to expand the use of drought
information tools to other provinces in Vietnam and other countries
of the Lower Mekong Region—and they hope to use even more enhanced
technology to do it.
“NASA has planned a new water monitoring satellite called Surface
Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT),” said Ankit Joshi,
SERVIR-Mekong’s Communications Lead. “SWOT’s higher resolution
sensors will enable SERVIR-Mekong to improve forecast accuracy
using more granular data thereby providing better insights to
policymakers and farmers.”
SWOT is being jointly developed by NASA and Centre National
D'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) with contributions from the Canadian
Space Agency (CSA) and United Kingdom Space Agency. NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory leads the U.S. component of the project
which is scheduled to launch in 2022. SERVIR-Mekong is ready
to be one of the earliest users of its data.
The remote countries in the Himalaya and Hindu Kush
(“HKH”) mountain ranges have been experiencing worsening
drought conditions over the past few decades – and climate
change isn’t helping. But, by fostering drought resilience,
SERVIR-HKH, hosted by the International Centre for
Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal is.
“Our main focus is on drought monitoring and assessing
drought impacts on crops,” said Faisal Qamar, Agriculture
and Food Security Lead for SERVIR-HKH. “We combine data
from satellites with water system models and weather forecasts
to create a framework for forecasting drought in the region.”
This SERVIR hub works with governments and stakeholders in
Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, among others. Each country
has a different approach to managing agriculture, so the design
and communication of the product must be tailored to the
specific needs of each country.
“We have to be persistent, and to work with teams within the
governments, and then prove how the use of satellite information
is better than the traditional way in terms of the quality
of the information and the value of money,” said Mir Matin,
the hub’s Geospatial Solutions Lead. “Having a tool become
mainstream requires substantial investment so partnerships
and capacity building are important.”
To build capacity, the hub offers on-the-job training to
partners on the development and application of products and
tools. They train staff from other agencies to use these
services and work to link their products with multilateral
agencies for greater uptake and sustainability. The hub also
offers trainings through schools and universities – including
programs aimed at increasing the equity and role of women
in agricultural solutions.
“Connecting space to village,” an apt motto for SERVIR,
highlights how the program provides stakeholders with
specialized information to make the best possible decisions
in the face of ever-growing environmental challenges.
Making the right decisions now will bring us one step
closer to a food secure future.
Provided by the IKCEST Disaster Risk Reduction Knowledge Service System