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IWMI’s space-based drought system wins award

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IWMI has won an award for its innovative work using remote sensing technology to help nations monitor and mitigate the impacts of drought. The Institute received the Geospatial World Excellence Award 2020. For the first time, a CGIAR center has won this accolade, in recognition of the positive impact its South Asia Drought Monitoring System (SADMS) has had. Since IWMI launched SADMS in 2014, the system has guided national, state and district-level authorities in India and Sri Lanka to take timely action to prepare for drought. This has helped to cushion smallholders, many of them poor, from the worst effects of prolonged dry spells.

“There was previously no integrated drought-monitoring and early-warning system available for South Asia,” explains Giriraj Amarnath, Research Group Leader for Water, Risks to Development and Resilience at IWMI. “So, in 2014, we began work to develop this capability. As well as including monitoring and visualization capabilities, we wanted the data to go to appropriate users, so they could make informed decisions on how best to mitigate the drought risk. At the time, no one was using complex remote sensing data for this kind of application; now it is routinely being used by organizations such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the World Bank.”

With the incidence of severe drought on the rise, governments must provide faster and better-targeted resilience-building and relief measures, which SADMS is designed to address. The satellite data underpinning SADMS is used to identify conditions of meteorological drought (where dry weather patterns dominate an area), agricultural drought (where crops become affected by this aridity), and levels of soil moisture. The system has three components: monitoring and forecasting; vulnerability and impact assessment; and mitigation and response planning, through drought contingency plans.

The monitoring and forecasting component of SADMS is based on indices including vegetation health, rainfall levels and soil moisture. This information facilitates the production of weekly drought severity maps for South Asia. The maps, which have a validated accuracy of 78-82%, help to inform stakeholders, including farmers, of forthcoming drought risk. The vulnerability and impact assessment component of SADMS, meanwhile, helps authorities to assess risks and vulnerability before droughts occur. Understanding the capacity of regions and communities to cope facilitates the design of targeted policies and programs. These feed into the mitigation and response component of SADMS, which is enacted when a drought is evolving.

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Put to the test

From 2017, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) used SADMS to implement real-time contingency measures. Specifically, it helped farmers in three districts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra to obtain drought-tolerant seeds, develop supplementary irrigation and apply potassium nitrate (which helps seedlings cope better with dry conditions). As a result, crop yields for soybean increased by 7–8 quintals (700–800 kilograms) per acre, pigeon pea by 5–6 quintals per acre and cotton by 12 to 14 quintals per acre.

In 2018, South Asia suffered a particularly severe drought, which affected 250 million people across an agricultural area of 66.5 million hectares. In India, the SADMS framework was adopted by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, a national research institute under ICAR, to disseminate drought information at subnational level for contingency planning. And IWMI briefed officials on the likely drought situation in Bihar, which helped to ensure that 23 districts received drought relief and support towards planning for the next crop season. In Sri Lanka, the World Food Programme and national partners used the system to produce a climate and food security bulletin.

Transferable technology

IWMI is now working with the World Bank to develop drought early-warning programs elsewhere. In Afghanistan, for example, it is helping to design a system for a drought response and declaration process. And the Institute is collaborating with the Word Bank and other partners on the Next Generation Drought Index Project. Focusing initially on  Senegal and Mozambique, the project is developing a framework of drought-monitoring indices, so that financial responses can be quickly triggered if particular drought conditions arise.

IWMI worked with the following partners to develop the SADMS: the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the World Meteorological Organization/Global Water Partnership Integrated Drought Management Programme and the technical support from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra.

You can find a full list of the Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2020 winners here.  

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Giriraj Amarnath is a Research Group Leader: Water Risks to Development and Resilience of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). His role focuses on climate risk assessment, monitoring and early warning tools using earth observation data and modeling tools, and the development of disaster risk insurance solutions. Dr. Giriraj began his career as a remote sensing expert at the University of Bayreuth, Germany and was a disaster risk specialist for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development at Kathmandu. He recently won the World Geospatial Excellence Award and 2020 GEO SDG Award in promoting innovative solutions in managing floods and drought using digital tools. Dr. Giriraj holds a Ph.D. in Applied remote sensing from the National Remote Sensing Centre, India, and an M.Sc. in Geoinformatics and Botany from the University of Madras.