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Satellites can help monitor and manage African droughts

Wilbur K. Ottichilo

11 November 2009

Kenyan MP and remote sensing expert, Wilbur Ottichilo, argues the time is ripe for using satellites to spot developing African droughts.

The six million square kilometres of the Greater Horn of Africa are home to about 200 million people.

Ecologically and environmentally, the region is highly precarious — more than 60 per cent of it is arid or semi-arid and most countries experience irregular rainfall and frequent droughts.

These conditions often lead to massive crop failures that bring hunger, malnutrition, starvation, mass migration and, in many cases, death.

The region suffers severe food security crises virtually every year, even if the catastrophic and headline-grabbing famines of the mid-1980s in Ethiopia and Sudan have not yet been repeated. For example, in the last two years (2007-2009), Kenya has experienced one of the worst droughts in recent times, resulting in food riots and outright famine.

To predict, monitor and mitigate such disasters we need rapid and continuous data and information gathering. But conventional methods are not effective for the large areas affected and struggle to adapt to global change.

Help from above

Remote sensing can help. Satellites can collect data at global and regional scales rapidly, repetitively and in digital form. Geostationary weather satellites, that sit 35,786 kilometres above the ground and can together see the whole Earth, are particularly useful.

Each satellite collects data every 15 minutes. The information is used to monitor changing weather, compare seasonal trends over time and predict rainfall over large areas, for both the short and long term.

Such data can provide a critical baseline from which future changes can be spotted, and droughts anticipated before they happen. And when used with geographical information systems (GIS) and other geospatial data, such as population density, the information can help measure risk and likely impacts.

Space and GIS technologies are widely used for planning in many parts of the world, yet they have yet to be widely adopted across most of Africa. Politicians remain unaware of the advantages, so countries lack institutional capacity or relevant policies and legislation.

Essentially, top politicians and decision-makers have yet to be convinced that remote sensing is crucial for predicting, and planning for, droughts. Partly this is because few decision-makers have a science background and most do not understand how the technology works.

But the problem is also partly conflicting pressures on limited budgets and the need to solve more tangible problems. Given the choice, most decision-makers will opt to fund a new primary school over a satellite receiving station.

Yet without reliable, systematic early warning systems and better local and national capability to manage disasters, quantifying their socioeconomic and environmental cost, or the benefits early warnings might bring, will remain difficult.

Persuading politicians

Politicians and decision-makers must be sensitised to how important remote sensing can be for disaster management.

Initially, this means researchers must work with members of parliament to demonstrate the power of remote sensing for drought prediction, and to explain how an integrated early warning system would help their local constituents.

Once politicians come on board, they will need to build institutional capacity. This means establishing or strengthening institutions to efficiently manage disasters. Institutions must both use satellite data to predict potential problems and find communication mechanisms to get early warnings out to farmers in the fields.

But there are signs of encouragement on the continent. The Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD), established in 1975 by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, has come into its own in recent years. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, it provides capacity building and advisory services for surveying, mapping, remote sensing and GIS.

Cost and credibility

The main challenge has been convincing countries that satellites are an important source of data. And, until recently, the technology has been generally new and expensive, requiring heavy financial and human investment.

But by 2000, remote sensing and GIS technology had become highly developed, user friendly and fairly cheap. In the last six years, RCMRD has been at the forefront of promoting remote sensing and GIS in Africa, collaborating with NASA to establish a satellite-based disaster early warning system known as SERVIR for Africa.

SERVIR provides real-time information on many disasters, including droughts. The information is made freely available on the Internet.

Many other organisations and institutions in Africa are now also providing satellite data and information for drought and disaster management, including the InterGovernmental Authority on Development’s Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), in East Africa, the Southern African Development Community, and AGRIMET in West Africa.

We have many of the basic tools required to harness remote sensing for monitoring and mitigating drought.

Equipment and software is cheaper than it has ever been. Satellite data is ready and waiting — two important sources, Meteosat 2nd generation geostationary weather data and SPOT vegetation data, are both free and already come in an easy-to-use format. And since 2004, the European Union has been installing free receiving stations across Africa so that local scientists can access data from a range of satellites directly.

Human capacity is not a major problem either — the RCMRD has been training people to manage remote sensing data for decades.

But for space and GIS technologies to firmly take root in Africa, we must urgently bring politicians on board and help them both build institutional capacity and design relevant policies and legislation.

Wilbur K. Ottichilo is a member of parliament in Kenya’s National Assembly and was director general of the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development from 2000 to 2007.

Furthr Resources:

Turning Honey into Money

Bee keeping is a venture that has not attracted many investors.

However, the demand for this product locally and internationally explains the dire need for more investors to engage in its production.Dickson Biryomumaisho, Director, Western Region – The Uganda National Apiculture Development Organization (TUNADO)  describes apiculture as the science of bees and art of keeping bees for production of honey, and other hive products using different techniques.  This art can be carried out with or without land.

“One may need as little as10 by 10 metres of land unlike other ventures,” he says.
He adds that the undertaking is a low cost investment liable for all classes of people as little or no capital is needed.

“Hives and other equipment can be made locally and bees are freely available and depend on beekeepers for food,” he says.

The traditional hives include broken pots, woven twig hive or log hives that are hang on trees. However, Biryomumaisho says that it is advisable for the bee farmers to graduate to the modern langsroth hives where unlike in traditional hives where honey is extracted naturally, a honey extractor is needed to harvest honey from this modern hive. Top bar hives are referred to as transitional ones as they bridge one from traditional bee farming to langsroth bee farming.  Langsroth hives are reusable, which could lead to an increase in honey production

“The traditional hives yield between 8 to 15 kilos per harvest whereas one can harvest 20 to 30 kilos from the modern Langstroth,” he says.
bee swarm

The potentially lucrative venture not only requires local materials but doesn’t need a lot of expertise; it can therefore be practiced by the educated and the uneducated. Irrespective of age, gender and economic status, all entrepreneurs can fit.  The venture can be looked at as a source of employment for many. In areas where beekeeping is predominant, people generate income by making beekeeping equipment, processing, packaging and selling bees’ products and extension works. The traditional hive sells between Shs10,000 to 20,000, the top bar hive stands at Shs40,000 to 55,000 while the langsroth goes for Shs100, 000 to 150,000. A bee hives maker can therefore earn a reasonable income. To the farmers, a kilo of honey today sells at between Shs6, 000 and 10,000. Biryomumaisho says such chances have been left for the low income earners therefore narrowing the fruitful sector.
“It can easily be done by all people irrespective of age, gender and social economic status,” he says.Bee keeping also enhances bio diversity and increases crop yields through pollination of crops. The busy insects also contribute to natural resource conservation. This renders bee keeping a non destructive and sustainable activity. Biryomumaisho adds that it can be used as a tool to reduce threats to Uganda’s vegetation particularly natural habitats.“(For instance) national parks, forests and woodlands are an alternative source of livelihood to communities,” he says.However, although they are natural, the apiary expert says that the honey producing insects require a healthy environment to dwell in. A place with vegetation and flowers is favourable because bees can easily pick nectar. It should also be away from noise as noise scares away bees and makes them shift. Marshy areas are risky to bees as they result to fungal diseases. Dirty places are breeding grounds for termites, lizards and spiders. It is therefore advisable to raise one’s hive from the ground. He also cautions that wind is not bees friendly.

While harvesting honey, the harvester needs to put on protective gear to avoid stings from the bees. Smoking might as well scare away the bees from one corner of the hive to the other.

After harvesting, the honey combs are put in air tight buckets to avoid aeration, which makes the honey liable to going bad soon. He cautions that not all honey is worth harvesting but ripe honey.

“When the honey is ripe, the combs cap. However when the combs are not sealed but honey is spotted, it is not ready,” he says.

However, he warns that if left for long, the combs turn black and they are no longer fresh for harvesting.

Although one should keep monitoring to know when the honey is ripe, Biryomumaisho says that bees don’t move during the rainy season, as they tend to make honey at the beginning of such seasons, making it possible to harvest at the beginning of the dry season.

“People mess up when they boil honey combs to extract honey, for they kill enzymes and the natural state of honey,” he adds.
If one uses a honey extractor, on the other hand, the centrifugal process separates honey from combs. One only requires putting the honey into a settling tank from where any remaining debris is removed.

The settling tank has a tap from where honey can be packed.
Mr Biryomumaisho however says that there is untapped potential in bee keeping at a time when Uganda has been given the green light to export honey to the European Union together with Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania. He is pessimistic that the product is not even enough for home consumption.
“The (local) market is big and we are still importing honey,” he concludes.

With thanks and acknowledment to Scola Kamau, Kampala.