desert agriculture irrigation farming

Google-powered satellite tool lowers water usage, boosts crop yields

An online tool using satellite data provided by Google is allowing farmers in Africa and the Middle East to reduce their water consumption while producing more crops.

WaPOR, an open-access database developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) enables countries to easily monitor how efficiently farms use water, allowing for improvements in irrigation and food production, the agency said. 

Climate change and a growing global population, set to go above nine billion people by 2050, are putting additional pressure on the world’s ever-scarcer water resources.

As agriculture is responsible for 70 per cent of all water used on the planet, it will be critical to increase ‘crop per drop’, experts say.

“Water use continues to surge at the same time that climate change - with increasing droughts and extreme weather - is altering and reducing water availability for agriculture,” said FAO’s deputy director-general Maria Helena Semedo.

“That puts a premium on making every drop count,” she said in a statement.

WaPOR uses complex satellite data on weather, temperature, soil and vegetation to calculate how much crop yield is produced per cubic metre of water consumed.

WaPOR map showing the gross biomass water productivity in Africa and the Middle East

The tool allows users like governments or farmers to spot areas where water is used inefficiently and take action by changing the irrigation system or switching to a more water-efficient crop, FAO said.

The first beta release of WaPOR was made available on 14 April 2017 and publishes continental data with a resolution of 250m between the dates April 2009 to December 2016. WaPOR will be increasingly improved during the course of 2017 and beyond.

“You can compare with your neighbour and say: ‘Look, he is planting his wheat field one month ahead of me or using this kind of irrigation system or fertilizer and he is doing much better’,” FAO technical officer Livia Peiser said.

The project funded by the Netherlands went live with data on Africa and the Middle East. FAO said more detailed information on countries facing water scarcity, including Mali, Ethiopia, Jordan and Egypt, will be made available later this year.

Two-thirds of the world’s population live in areas experiencing water scarcity at least one month a year, according to the United Nations.

Last year, Canadian researchers developed a machine that makes water from the air, even in dry climates, with five times the efficiency of previously developed devices that do the same job. 

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