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Space technology for locust early warning systems

Climate changes are making us all witness numerous discrepancies in the way nature usually behaves and the recent havoc caused by locust swarms throughout Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and India is another case in point. The world is already under a lot of stress due to the COVID-19 crisis and the destruction caused by the recent locust swarms has added to the woes. The time has come to think hard on the solutions that can alert the world about the appearance of the swarms and enable the farmers be more prepared, take adequate preventive measures and save the croplands. It must be explored how to use space technology for locust early warning systems and preparedness.

Space technology is the way forward

Early warning systems based on satellite imagery and data have already been playing a vital role in saving the world from natural disasters like earthquake, tsunami, floods etc. and now is the time to use the immense capabilities of space technologies to solve the problems of locust swarms. Realizing this need, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) through its UN-SPIDER programme and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) jointly organized a Webinar on Space-based inputs for Locust early warning and preparedness on Friday 12 June 2020.

The webinar enabled everyone to gain a deep understanding on how space technologies, remote sensing, GIS and advanced geospatial technologies can be used for effective locust forecasting and management of locust outbreaks; how satellite data monitoring of the impact of locust can aid in preparedness and response planning.

Dr. Shirish Ravan from UNOOSA opened and moderated the entire Webinar. Dr. Simonetta Di Pippo, Director,UNOOSA, set the tone with some impactful words. She said, “COVID-19 has already affected the global supply chain and food availability and the desert locust swarms are making things worse. In these difficult times, Space provides hope. Satellites can help in counteracting locust arrivals and the associated risks.”

Taking the discussion further, Mr. Mark Smith, Deputy Director General, IWMI shared, “We are in an extremely serious situation. We have to respond. Our priority should be risk management in agriculture. Locust swarms are related to climate changes and this is where Earth Observation can play an important role. Satellite monitoring and high-resolution imagery can help in combating such problems. Satellite data can significantly help in managing the risks.”

Also Read:Harnessing precise imagery to improve crops

Mr. S.N. Sushil, Principal Scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) shared interesting facts about the different types of locusts, their breeding patterns and when and why they start moving in swarms. It was interesting to learn that locusts exist in two different forms, solitary and swarming. Locusts can go decades without swarming and may just be around without getting noticed. It is only when a climate change improves the conditions for them and they start breeding rapidly, the problem begins. The increased population density alters the locusts’ appearance and brain chemistry and they start moving together in large groups or swarms, most likely in search of places where there is more rain and food. While swarming they consume all the food in any given area causing immense damage to the crops.

Mr Sushil discussed about the important role the Locust Warning Organization (LWO) in India is playing in monitoring and controlling the locust situation in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana. However, he inadvertently implied that a lot more needs to be done to manage the damage. Locust early warning systems are a must now.

IWMI has been playing an unmatched role in devising strategies and solutions for improving management of water and land resources, with the aim of underpinning food security and reducing poverty. During the discussion, Mr. Giriraj Amarnath,  Research Group Leader for the Water Risks and Disasters (WRD) theme at IWMI, rightly pointed out, “We are in a dual crisis now. We are already facing a food crisis and 1km2 of swarm can eat the same food as 35000 people in a day. We have plenty of forecast models available. Government organizations must use this data and  refine to predict when the locusts will come, what is likely to happen. Data is available on wind direction, vegetation, rainfall, etc. Combination of short and long-term forecasting can help the government in forecasting the movement and behavior of locust accurately. Operational and weather climate variables can guide authorities to prepare response mechanisms to deal with the crisis.”

Also Read: Surveying soil from the sky: Can satellites predict droughts and floods?

Mr. Erick Fernandes from World Bank’s Agriculture Observatory agreed to the thought that Remote Sensing and GIS technologies have huge potential in creating a robust desert locust monitoring system. GIS can help in hotspot identification, overlay analysis, trend analysis and forecasting and locust story mapping.  

Mr Raj Kumar from the Space Applications Centre, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made an interesting point that to create a sound locust early warning system, Sentinel data is not sufficient. We need very high-resolution imagery to detect the breeding of locusts, only then can an effective early warning system be there. He also said that along with satellite data and remote sensing data, we need strong ground survey data to make things really work.

Mr. Amarnath added to this thought by saying, “Technology alone will not prevent locust plagues but when integrated with field station and national locust preventive program aided with sufficient resources can contribute to improving early warning as a means of reducing the frequency of locust plagues.”

As can be concluded from the discussion that multi-source earth observation data, including MODIS and Landsat and Sentinel data, meteorogical data, field data and self-developed models and algorithms must be combined to create efficient desert locust monitoring and forecasting systems. Experts from different fields need to collaborate and use their expertise to create early warning systems that can help the farmers fight the menace and protect the world from the consequent food crisis. Use of space technology for locust early warning systems and preparedness. is the way forward!

Delve deeper into the discussion. Click here for the recorded Webinar.