Earth Observation and Geospatial Data Key to Humanitarian Assistance


The integration of earth observation and geospatial information for timely and reliable data has become critical for monitoring food security and vulnerabilities associated with disasters and climate change. In Nepal, two-thirds of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and with uncertainties in weather patterns, the water cycle, and water availability, reliable crop production across the country faces serious challenges.

In adopting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), world leaders recognized the important role of earth observation and geospatial data in achieving and monitoring development outcomes of the SDGs. The current Food Security Information System, developed jointly by the Ministry of Agricultural Development (MoAD), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is an excellent demonstration on heading towards this direction for improved decision making and policy formulation.

The Food Security Information System for Nepal provides a one-stop access point, to compile, analyse, and disseminate important information on food security.

The latest online system includes easy-to-read data regarding regular food security indicators, monthly food market prices, and interactive graphics to map and visualize patterns of food security, poverty, and malnutrition in Nepal.

“As a result of this online platform, we combined information from ICIMOD and NeKSAP (Nepal Food Security Monitoring System), and knew well in advance that we were facing a very serious situation in the Far West. The platform enabled us and gave us the time to put together, with the government, a response so we could reach these remote areas and provide timely assistance,” said Pippa Bradford, WFP Representative and Country Director in Nepal, speaking at the launch of the online food and security information system.

ICIMOD provided satellite imagery based estimates of flood inundation to WFP to support its emergency response after the heavy 2017 monsoon rains, which triggered severe flash floods and landslides in 35 districts. The incessant rainfall critically affected the southern Terai plains causing severe humanitarian crises, displacing thousands of families, damaging houses, and causes losses to agricultural production. The floods affected food security, health and sanitation, and access to basic services. The satellite imagery was instrumental in identifying areas for targeting relief efforts to the affected communities and small area estimates of food poverty were used to calculate the number of food insecure people.

Additionally, in 2016, when remote districts of Western Nepal experienced their worst drought in 40 years, WFP used earth observation information and analyses provided by the SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) initiative at ICIMOD. These products helped WFP to identify and provide food assistance worth USD 1 million to areas that were most in need.

During the launch, Bradford also recalled Somalia’s severe drought crisis of 2011, “We did not have an information system or an early warning system so the drought percolating in the heart of Africa was completely invisible to the humanitarian community. We had absolutely no idea, no preparation, and we immediately went into action to aid nearly 300,000 starving Somalis when they arrived at the camp. But thankfully today we have the necessary information system in place and I think we should all value it.”

To increase the effectiveness of relief and rescue efforts, WFP recently renewed its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with ICIMOD to improve food security monitoring and analysis using earth observation (EO) technologies—remote sensing, geospatial products, and field-based assessments. With this agreement, WFP and ICIMOD aim to provide timely information on potential agricultural production, flood and drought early warnings, and food security situations for the benefit of mountain and downstream communities and their environment.

“Seventeen SDGs are inherently geospatial in nature and keeping track of progress on these indicators essentially require tools, technologies, and professional capacity in applying GIS. We expect that our work will improve the adoption of data collection standards and the harmonization of data and information for creating high quality national and regional databases to support transparent decision making processes,” said David Molden, Director General, ICIMOD, also speaking at the launch.

Molden emphasized that the use of sound data and intelligent mapping tools are key to better understanding complex socio-economic and biophysical systems and that ICIMOD will continue to contribute to enhancing capacities and strengthening regional information networking through the use of information services on key priorities defined by national governments.

The Mountain Environment Regional Information System (MENRIS) programme of ICIMOD aims to contribute to effective evidence-based decision-making processes by governments, communities, and individuals using scientific data and geospatial technologies in the areas of agriculture, environment, and natural resources.