Water for Food

Big data, more crops?

November 18, 2014

By Jeremy Bird, Director General of the International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka

We have more data than ever to help guide agricultural water management, but will it lead to big gains in productivity? Yes, but only if we get the institutional arrangements right.

On a typical farm in the Midwestern U.S., there are few people about. Despite the growing global demand for food, fewer farmers are needed. Increasingly, modern machinery is now fully automated, often run remotely from a computer terminal. Even irrigation systems can be guided by satellite sourced data on groundwater and rainfall. This is fed directly into simple processors, which then drive controls and motors, allowing smart targeting of water resources to produce maximum yields. The systems are highly efficient, hugely productive and part of a continuing trend toward high-tech farming that has guaranteed food security in the West for three generations.

By contrast, in Africa and Asia, a greater proportion of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, but data is often hard to come by. There are huge opportunities to sustainably develop agriculture in these regions, but a lack of information hampers effective decision-making at all levels.

This is now changing. New remote sensing technology is allowing us to access geophysical data in remote areas on a hitherto unimaginable scale. At my own institution, for instance, we are able to use satellite imagery to count individual farm wells, which greatly adds to our understanding of agricultural and land use trends. We can also obtain insights into irrigation efficiency and groundwater levels using similar techniques.

We are able to not only collect this data, but also process it and then share it with farmers. Mobile telephone networks now reach almost every corner of Africa and Asia. In partnership with the Dutch technology company, eLeaf, for instance, we are piloting an automated SMS-based messaging service for farmers that uses satellite sensing to create real-time, field level information on crop health and irrigation needs. If part of the field needs water, or plants are not thriving as they should, a quick text alerts the farmer.

Mobile phones provide smallholder farmers with useful information regarding weather and water requirements, empowering them to make better informed decisions regarding land and water resources management. (F. Fiondella, IRI/CCAFS)

Mobile phones provide smallholder farmers with useful information regarding weather and water requirements, empowering them to make better informed decisions regarding land and water resources management. (F. Fiondella, IRI/CCAFS)

This approach is also being explored as a means of building resilience to floods and droughts. A changing climate is likely to make water variability extremes more common. Remotely sensed data and computer modelling is now allowing scientists to more accurately predict the risk of floods and droughts and to allow farmers to adjust their activities accordingly. For instance, IWMI scientists are mapping flooding in the Gash region of Sudan. We hope that by giving farmers better flood predictions, they will be able to put the excess water to good use for spate irrigation.

But satellites cannot measure everything. Data collection in the field still plays an important role in natural resource research. Happily, this aspect of the scientific method is also simplified by new technology. Mobile networks, for example, can greatly aid collection of geophysical data on the ground. In Pakistan, we are experimenting with automated water flow sensors that feed information directly into the network. This is giving irrigation scheme managers accurate real-time information on water movements for the first time. IWMI has also looked at how local people can contribute to better measurement. Globally, “citizen scientists” are already contributing huge amounts of useful field data, whilst at the same time empowering communities to take control of their own resources.

An IWMI researcher verifies the on-ground situation in Ethiopia. Satellite data sent via a permanent river gauge indicated that there was no river flow at this time of the year. Farmers had created small canals to divert water to their crops and water no longer flowed past the river gauge. (P. Loney/IWMI)

An IWMI researcher verifies the on-ground situation in Ethiopia. Satellite data sent via a permanent river gauge indicated that there was no river flow at this time of the year. Farmers had created small canals to divert water to their crops and water no longer flowed past the river gauge. (P. Loney/IWMI)

New data will generate new insights, leading to improved advice for farmers and policymakers. But innovation may not scale up, if the socio-economic constraints under which many smallholders and natural resource managers operate are not better understood.

Yet here again the mobile revolution is making inroads. IWMI researchers and their partners are looking at how the improved connectivity could contribute to the collection of social science data.

It has long been understood, for instance, that in many rural communities men and women farm differently. They have different access to resources and often take on different tasks, defined by longstanding cultural norms. More data on how these roles play out across the landscape would help policymakers and investors to address inequities. Mobile phones are now allowing IWMI’s researchers and their partners to communicate better with communities, crowdsource data and help map gender disparities.

More data, however, throws up a further problem. When resources are limited, what information should you focus on? Collecting and processing data has a cost. So, as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, which IWMI leads, scientists are now exploring how a decision support analysis (DSA) approach will allow them to focus their efforts on collecting the data that really matters. This technique has been applied to research that, it is hoped, can inform the development of an aquifer in Northern Kenya. The project has many stakeholders with very different water needs, such as pastoralists, urban planners and farmers. DSA lets the researchers assess the likely impacts on each and assess how the quality of data available can influence perspectives and the robustness of decisions.

The data revolution affects us all and can seem overwhelming. But for poor famers in traditionally data poor areas, it may be a game changer. Of course data alone is not enough. We need a receptiveness among policy and decision-makers to respond to the new insights that are possible from big data and to provide the right incentive frameworks to encourage improvements in performance and sustainability. Knowledge may be power, but data can drive development through making information and knowledge more broadly available.

Jeremy Bird, Director General of IWMI.

Jeremy Bird, Director General of IWMI.1

Jeremy Bird specializes in water resources policy, management and institutions. His background includes applied research in agricultural water management; development finance; policy development on global, regional and national scales; coordination of multi-stakeholder dialogue processes; and management of a major river basin organization. His interests include increasing understanding of complex and multidimensional processes and placing information in the public domain to help identify integrated and effective solutions. Headquartered in Sri Lanka, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is a non-profit, scientific research organization that focuses on the sustainable use of water and land resources in developing countries.

The Daugherty Water for Food Institute and IWMI signed a collaborative memorandum of understanding at the 2014 Water for Food Global Conference last month, establishing a partnership to help advance their shared goals of ensuring global water and food security.

1Watch Bird’s talk from the 2014 Water for Food Global Conference, “Big Data, Big Productivity Gains: Is It So Simple in Water Management?”

 
Disclaimer: The Daugherty Water for Food Institute welcomes blog articles from guest contributors. Please note the comments shared by guests represent their own views and not necessarily those of DWFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which DWFI may be affiliated.


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