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More feasible and efficient water use through terabytes of satellite data

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Earth observation data from satellites like Sentinel 2 are reaching applications such as maps and dashboards more quickly than ever. This includes data on water consumption by crops such as sugarcane. Annemarie Klaasse of eLEAF explains what it takes to develop commercially viable applications for farmers, irrigation managers and water agencies to improve efficient water use.

A public-private partnership (PPP) to improve the water use efficiency of sugarcane production in India used eLEAF's satellite data. The project received funding from the Sustainable Water Fund (FDW).

"The focus of agriculture is often on crop production per hectare. However, in the more arid areas of the world, the land is not the limiting factor, but the availability of water is," starts Annemarie Klaasse of eLEAF.

She has 25 years of experience in the satellite earth observation sector. She works at the Dutch scale-up eLEAF, which provides data and services to optimise agricultural production and water management. "The advantages of satellite data are its observation frequency, consistency, and the large areas that are all assessed similarly," she adds.

eLEAF collects satellite data on evapotranspiration, indicating how much water crops consume. The other indicator is biomass production, which indicates crop growth. For example, terabytes of earth surveillance data are processed into irrigation performance indicators. These water agencies, irrigation managers, agriculture companies, and farmers identify the best-performing irrigation scheme and the best way to distribute the water over a river basin.

More food

The relevance of companies such as eLEAF cannot be underestimated. Climate change makes weather patterns less predictable, and crops must survive more extended drought periods. However, that is not the only challenge. Global food production as a whole has to increase. By 2050, it needs to double to meet the demand of the growing world population.

eLEAF participated in one of the PPPs of the FDW programme in India. Solidaridad led the project, supporting 2 Indian sugarcane companies in reducing groundwater extraction. In India, sugarcane production puts considerable stress on groundwater. Over-extraction lowers groundwater levels and threatens the income security of millions of sugarcane growers; the project aimed to improve water use efficiency.


"Our role was the satellite mapping of sugarcane plots for information on water, crop and crop-water productivity," explains Annemarie. "Unfortunately, our model relies on optical satellite data. Regularly monitoring the sugarcane fields was difficult during the monsoon, which limited uptake by the 3 sugar mills involved." In follow-up projects, we use satellite radar and optical satellite data to overcome the data gap in sugarcane monitoring.

Working for clients such as sugarcane producers is a daily business for eLEAF. Annemarie is responsible for the institutional accounts; she spends her days reducing the number of indicators. "The number of free portals is growing rapidly, and many satellite data users cannot find the right platform for their needs," she observes. "In our line of business, we aim to bring down these huge amounts of satellite data to a few useful indicators to help our customers optimise water productivity in the field and water distribution in the basin. The data must link to the real situation on the fields."

Different users

Water efficiency is commonly associated with finding the correct irrigation methods for farmers. However, river basin agencies find themselves increasingly involved in water efficiency. During droughts, they are the ones that can distribute the remaining small volumes to the areas where the water is most needed.

eLEAF participated in a project involving Moroccan river basin agencies. Morocco is suffering from severe droughts. Last year, the country witnessed the largest decrease in rainfall ever. Annemarie says, "Initially, we explored the usability of our satellite data and developed our normal maps.

Using these maps required more work, and we needed geospatial skills to analyse the maps. With financial support from the Netherlands government, we developed an interactive dashboard summarising the initial datasets to the information they needed in one click." According to Annemarie, the tool enables the agencies to simplify the complex water flows in their catchment and zoom in on their interest's sub-basins.

Open access

"Earth observation surveillance and data analyses are a growing market," Annemarie explains, "but it takes users time to include this information in their daily practice." She acknowledges that the willingness to pay for data services is still low. The introduction of new data services is difficult without financial support from donors.

Annemarie has high expectations from the open-access WaPOR portal on water productivity. eLEAF developed the portal, funded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to produce data on rainfall and evaporation on agricultural land in Africa and the Middle East. "WaPOR makes this data available to a much wider community.

With local partners in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, we co-develop new WaPOR-based services. These local partners understand the culture and the market. They are much better at identifying new opportunities for paid services."

Annemarie is optimistic. "There is a great need for information on water, especially now the availability of water has become more important. The value of water is increasing. Water efficiency would make economic sense if it were not for the energy costs of pumping up all that groundwater."

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