Improving food security in the Indo-Gangetic Basin using satellite data

05 Jan 2022
Earth observation data supported damage and loss assessment.
Earth observation data supported damage and loss assessment. (illustration: Sudip Maharjan/ICIMOD)

Global food security is a complex issue and is expected to worsen due to population growth and other emerging issues such as climate change. South Asia, with its extremely limited arable land, faces the daunting challenge of feeding a growing population that is projected to increase by 19% (to 431 million people) by 2050. Although, the region has witnessed some progress in reducing the number of undernourished people, this is still not sufficient to achieve the zero-hunger target of Sustainable Development Goal 2 by 2030.

In the Indo-Gangetic Basin, 130 million farmers in the downstream plains depend on water originating from glacier and snowmelt in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The projected depletion of meltwater and groundwater will severely harm the agriculture sector. Rapid economic development and urbanization add to the complexity of the challenge as they compete for land with the agricultural sector. Along with food shortages resulting from increased frequency and magnitude of extreme events, unsustainable agricultural practices like over-extraction of water, crop intensification, and extensive use of chemical fertilizers damage ecosystem services and impair the long-term capacity of land to sustain high agricultural outputs. In such circumstances, maintaining food demand and supply balance is extremely important for agricultural policy and decision-making. Thus, there is a need to monitor and estimate crop acreage to determine food demand and supply balance. The use of open-source satellite-based information to monitor climate and crops at daily and seasonal scales for analysis of crop performance provides a cost-effective means to support decision-making.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)’s SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) Initiative – a joint partnership of NASA, USAID, and ICIMOD – has been collaborating with national agencies in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan to enhance institutional capacities on the use of Earth observation (EO) technologies in food security assessment and planning. SERVIR’s technical implementation framework caters to two levels of decisions related to near term food balance sheets and long-term strategies for sustainability. The initiative has embarked on developing locally suitable tools and methods from the ground-up through co-development with institutions, communities, and individuals. As part of the customization of global technology, the crop mapping and monitoring platform is being tailored to local practices in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Sub-district procurement planning during the COVID-19 pandemic using remote sensing-based crop area estimates in Nepal

Until recently, crop statistics in Nepal were only available at the district level, creating barriers to planning at smaller scales. Following a successful pilot study at the district level in Chitwan in 2020, ICIMOD and the Planning Division at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) carried out a remote sensing-based rice crop area estimation in 21 districts of the Terai region in Nepal. MoALD used these results for crop procurement and subsidy planning at the sub-district level. The exercise demonstrates that incorporating remote sensing and machine learning algorithms in-season crop mapping substantially improves the accuracy of crop area estimates and yield assessments. High quality crop maps and yield estimates will not only bridge information needs among the federal and sub-national institutions but will also provide a means for consistent cross-country crop status assessments and communication. While relatively new, this technology is already supporting agricultural management from the national down to the community level. This collaborative work has significantly contributed to MoALD’s efforts to adopt new data-driven technologies.

engagement with agriculture institutions
Various levels of engagement with agriculture institutions of Nepal during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021

Assessing the impact of cyclone Amphan on Aus rice cultivation in Bangladesh

When super cyclone Amphan made landfall along the Indian and Bangladeshi coastline on 20 May 2020, ICIMOD carried out a remote sensing-based assessment to study the impact of the cyclone on Aus rice – a rice variety transplanted between April and May – in the Barisal and Khulna divisions in Bangladesh using Sentinel satellite imagery. Sentinel-1’s C-band constellation enables continuous monitoring of an area despite heavy cloud cover during inclement weather like cyclones. The study team derived data on the standing rice crop area in January–May using data from the satellite, and data on permanent water bodies was derived from historic satellite data. Using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) backscatter ratio, we were able to identify the flood extent during 21-23 May to assess the impact of cyclone Amphan on the Aus rice crop.

The study revealed that floods during cyclone Amphan inundated 21,746 hectares (11% of the total cultivated area) and 26,139 hectares (18% of the total cultivated area) in the Barisal and Khulna divisions, respectively. The SERVIR-HKH initiative is now partnering with Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Bangladesh to refine the methods further and develop a platform for national level assessments.

Aus rice crop distribution
Aus rice crop distribution and flood inundation during cyclone Amphan

Updating the agro ecological zones of Pakistan

In Pakistan, SERVIR-HKH collaborated with the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) on the updating of agro ecological zones of Pakistan, as part of the agriculture transformation plan envisaged by the government to protect growers, consumers, and the local industry. The plan introduces latest interventions for achieving sustainable agriculture development and reduces the reliance on imported food items. The use of remote sensing data products will contribute to a clear understanding of cropping patterns and historic changes along with socioeconomic and ecological impacts of agricultural land use change in the region, which is essential in developing well-informed policies.

In our efforts, we emphasize on aligning technological platform functions with existing institutional structures within national agricultural agencies to ensure smooth adoption and sustainability of our services and products. Additionally, we are up-skilling national professionals in the use of geospatial technologies in agriculture research and operations. Our co-development and co-implementation approach and early engagement ensures prompt feedback on our methods, acceptance at the national and local levels, and charts a clear understanding of needs.


Faisal M. Qamer

Remote Sensing Specialist
sravan shrestha

Sravan Shrestha

Remote Sensing & Geoinformation Associate – SERVIR

Birendra Bajracharya

Programme Coordinator, SERVIR-HKH