Keeping Their Eyes on Earth

Collider member Eyes on Earth is helping to manage water supplies in Southeast Asia—and food resources across the globe

The Collider
Oct 3, 2019 · 4 min read

By Mickey Snowdon, Communications Liaison

A flooded crop field. Photo by Sergei Akulich on Burst.

Food and water security are among the most significant issues facing our planet. The United Nations (UN) reports that the world’s population could reach 8.5 billion people by 2030, increasing strain on the world’s already stressed resources.

Collider member organization Eyes on Earth is innovating ways for us all to access and manage these vital resources in a rapidly changing climate.

The Eyes on Earth team has worked with private, public, and academic organizations — including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the UN, the global food conglomerate Cargill, reinsurance companies, and the Canadian government — to determine water levels and predict future agricultural yields around the globe.

Trouble upstream

The Mekong River originates from the Tibetan Plateau as snow melt and flows through China before making its way into Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), an organization comprised of the aforementioned Asian countries (minus China) who rely on the Mekong River for sustenance, has contracted Eyes on Earth to determine the extent to which China is restricting the Mekong’s natural flow with the five hydroelectric dams the country has already built along the river.

Eyes on Earth’s wetness and temperature monitoring is unique in that it uses microwaves transmitted from satellites to cut through cloud coverage to detect the quantity of water in a given river basin. From there, the team is able to determine how much water should naturally flow downstream — versus how much water is actually flowing. If the flow of water downstream is less than its natural flow, it could mean that water is being redirected or withheld upstream.

The Mekong River, pictured here in Laos, hit record lows in July. More than 60 million people rely on the river for their livelihoods. Photo by MoreToTheShell on Pixabay.

In this case, the Eyes on Earth team thinks that China is holding and releasing more than its fair share of water to generate electricity, compounding the already severe drought and flooding afflicting the LMI countries on the other side of the dams. In fact, in July the Mekong River was at its lowest levels ever recorded.

When drought is followed immediately by flooding — either due to releasing excess water from a dam or climate change — the impact on crops can be devastating. In a part of the world where 60 million people are already undernourished, the need for precise climate observations like Eyes on Earth’s are critical.

Hungry and poor

When you consider USDA estimates that global food production will need to increase by 70 to 100 percent by 2050 to meet population demand, crop yield predictions like those issued by Eyes on Earth are crucial to successfully building resilience to a changing climate.

Food insecurity is a double-edged sword because it not only creates hunger and malnutrition, but also exacerbates poverty. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Because many families in the developing world rely on farming and fishing for their livelihoods, they are directly affected financially when there is a threat to crops and fisheries.
  • Poor households in developing countries typically spend around 70 to 80 percent of their income on food (compared to the 10 to 15 percent that households in wealthier nations spend); therefore they’re greatly impacted when food prices rise due to climate events such as drought and flooding.

Nowhere is this hunger and poverty more apparent than in the developing regions of Asia and Africa, which house three-fifths of the world’s “extremely poor.”

Flooded slums on the edge of Xiamen, a port city on the southeast coast of China. Photo by stark8 on Pixabay.

In order to cope with a changing climate, farmers and their countries need access to detailed, localized weather and climate information. To this end, the Eyes on Earth team has worked with the UN and the USDA to monitor food supplies across the globe by translating changes in regional land temperature and soil wetness over time into useful climate prediction models.

They analyze nearly 30 years of climate data to provide their customers with a wide array of applications, including:

  • Growing conditions and their potential impact on food supply
  • Risk indices that can help farmers mitigate crop damage and drought
  • Crop selection and management of food and water supplies

While communicating climate and weather information is important in and of itself, the implications of the reports can be unimaginably far-reaching. For example, by calculating the amount of water entering a local river basin, the team has been able to help the World Bank promote equitable water sharing between nations—strengthening foreign diplomacy.

As our understanding of the rapidly warming climate—and the associated impacts—grows, so does our need to adapt to and recover from catastrophic impacts.

The Eyes on Earth team has contributed to this global understanding by providing scientific support to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Bank, the UN Development Program, and various governments, and they work with seasoned climate policy and risk assessment experts to enhance their climate services.

They’re keeping their eyes on Earth for us all.

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

Thanks to Nina Flagler Hall

The Collider

Written by

A nonprofit member network providing climate solutions. | Based in Asheville, NC |

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

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