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Mea­sur­ing how ef­fi­ciently wa­ter is used in agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in wa­ter-scarce coun­tries, is go­ing high-tech with the help of a new tool de­vel­oped by the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions (FAO).

The Wa­ter Pro­duc­tiv­ity (WaPOR) open-ac­cess data­base has gone live, tap­ping satel­lite data to help farm­ers achieve more re­li­able agri­cul­tural yields and al­low­ing for the op­ti­mi­sa­tion of ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems.

WaPOR was pre­sented dur­ing a high-level part­ners meet­ing for FAO's ‘Cop­ing with wa­ter scarcity in agri­cul­ture: a global frame­work for ac­tion in a chang­ing cli­mate’. It al­lows for fine-grained anal­y­sis of wa­ter utilised through farm­ing sys­tems, gen­er­at­ing em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence about how it can be most pro­duc­tively used.

World­wide wa­ter util­i­sa­tion - the ma­jor­ity of which is used by agri­cul­ture - has out­paced the rate of pop­u­la­tion growth for most of the last cen­tury and some re­gions are close to breach­ing vi­able lim­its.

"Wa­ter use con­tin­ues to surge at the same time that cli­mate change - with in­creas­ing droughts and ex­treme weather - is al­ter­ing and re­duc­ing wa­ter avail­abil­ity for agri­cul­ture," says Maria He­lena Semedo, FAO's Deputy Di­rec­tor­Gen­eral, Cli­mate Change and Nat­u­ral Resources. "That puts a premium on mak­ing every drop count, un­der­scor­ing the im­por­tance of meet­ing grow­ing food pro­duc­tion needs from ef­fi­ciency gains."

WaPOR sifts through satel­lite data and uses Google Earth com­put­ing power to pro­duce maps that show how much biomass and yield is pro­duced per cu­bic me­ter of wa­ter con­sumed.

The maps can be ren­dered at res­o­lu­tions of as lit­tle as 30 to 250 me­ters, and up­dated every one to ten days.

FAO's team of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and land and wa­ter of­fi­cers has de­signed WaPOR -

through a US$10 mil­lion project funded by the Gov­ern­ment of the Nether­lands - to cover Africa and the Near East, with a fo­cus on key coun­tries that are or are pro­jected soon to face phys­i­cal or in­fras­truc­tural wa­ter scarcity.

The con­ti­nen­tal level data­base is on­line as of to­day, while coun­try level data will be made avail­able in June for Benin, Bu­rundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jor­dan, Kenya, Le­banon, Mali, Morocco, Mozam­bique, Rwanda, South Su­dan, Syria, Tu­nisia, Uganda, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Ye­men. Even more de­tailed data will come on­line in Oc­to­ber, start­ing with pi­lot ar­eas in Le­banon, Ethiopia and Mali.

Modus Operandi

WaPOR mea­sures evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion, a key phase in the nat­u­ral wa­ter cy­cle con­sist­ing of wa­ter that di­rectly evap­o­rates into the at­mo­sphere and wa­ter that re­turns to the at­mo­sphere after mov­ing through a plant and emerg­ing as vapour ex­uded by fo­liage.

Evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion thus pro­vides a direct mea­sure of the wa­ter con­sumed by a crop dur­ing a grow­ing sea­son and, when re­lated to the biomass and har­vestable crop yield, al­lows for cal­cu­lat­ing the crop wa­ter pro­duc­tiv­ity.

The tool can pro­duce de­tailed as­sess­ments to mon­i­tor the func­tion­ing of a se­lected set of ir­ri­ga­tion schemes, sup­port­ing mod­erni­sa­tion plans as well as help­ing as­sure that im­prove­ments do in fact re­sult in all wa­ter users re­ceiv­ing more re­li­able and cost­ef­fec­tive wa­ter ser­vices that are more adapted to in­creased cli­mate vari­abil­ity.

The pro­gramme uses a pix­el­based method­ol­ogy to pro­duce com­pre­hen­sive maps al­low­ing for bet­ter use of nat­u­ral resources. When cou­pled with real-time data, agri­cul­tural ex­ten­sion agents can help farm­ers ob­tain more re­li­able crop yields, both im­prov­ing their liveli­hoods and mak­ing them more sus­tain­able.

"Sup­port­ing small­holder farm­ers with ac­cess to geospa­tial in­for­ma­tion that can op­ti­mise wa­ter avail­abil­ity and curb their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to cli­mate change is a key mis­sion for FAO and this is an im­por­tant first step," said FAO As­sis­tant Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral René Cas­tro, head of the Cli­mate, Bio­di­ver­sity, Land and Wa­ter De­part­ment.

The IHE Delft In­sti­tute for Wa­ter Ed­u­ca­tion, part of UNESCO and the world's largest in­ter­na­tional grad­u­ate wa­ter ed­u­ca­tion fa­cil­ity, and the In­ter­na­tional Wa­ter Man­age­ment In­sti­tute (IWMI) will sup­port ef­forts in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to boost ca­pac­ity to use the new tech­nol­ogy - by tai­lor­ing rel­e­vant direct data queries, con­duct­ing time series analy­ses and down­load­ing data re­gard­ing key vari­ables that con­trib­ute to wa­ter and land pro­duc­tiv­ity as­sess­ments. The WaPOR tool is be­ing de­vel­oped in co­op­er­a­tion with a con­sor­tium of part­ners in the Nether­lands - eLEAF, Univer­sity of Twente, ITC and Water­watch Foun­da­tion - as well as VITO in Bel­gium. The work plan an­tic­i­pates de­vel­op­ing apps that can run on smart­phones, en­abling lo­cally rel­e­vant use of the data from the spa­tial data­base.

Wa­ter ac­count­ing

Wa­ter ac­count­ing is in­creas­ingly pro­moted as an in­dis­pens­able tool, par­tic­u­larly in wa­ter-strained ar­eas. This in­clude co­her­ent as­sess­ments of wa­ter resources avail­abil­ity, which must in­cor­po­rate cli­mate fac­tors and re­quire con­sid­er­a­tion of eq­ui­table en­ti­tle­ment - in par­tic­u­lar al­lo­ca­tion of wa­ter for do­mes­tic and in­dus­trial uses and for broader ecosys­tem ser­vices. FAO of­fers tech­ni­cal ad­vice on set­ting up ap­pro­pri­ate wa­ter ac­count­ing and au­dit­ing frame­works.

It is es­ti­mated that for each 1 de­gree Cel­sius of global warm­ing, 7 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion will ex­pe­ri­ence a de­crease of 20 per­cent or more in re­new­able wa­ter resources. Im­proved man­age­ment of wa­ter resources are men­tioned as a crit­i­cal area for in­ter­ven­tion in the vast ma­jor­ity of the na­tional cli­mate-change adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion plans sub­mit­ted to ful­fill com­mit­ments un­der the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment.

Cli­mate change is re­duc­ing wa­ter avail­abil­ity. It puts a premium on mak­ing every drop count, un­der­scor­ing the im­por­tance of meet­ing grow­ing food pro­duc­tion needs from ef­fi­ciency gains

Maria He­lena Semedo

DDD - Cli­mate Change and Nat­u­ral Resources, FAO

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