By collecting data on the climate, vegetation and humidity, the European Space Agency’s earth observation satellites give a better understanding of the conditions that effect crops and grazing lands.
These are both vital components in agricultural production.
Sitting at an altitude of more than two thousand metres is the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa – the operational centre of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation for the whole of Eastern Africa.
Mafa Chipeta is the Sub-regional coordinator for the FAO for Southern Africa. He says that satellite data has helped increase cereal production in Ethiopia. But production is fragile and with a failure of the short rains, which account for 15 % of grain in the country, the total for the whole sub region is suffering. Since 1986 the price of basic food commodities has gone up by 56% hitting one of the most fragile countries head-on.
Pack animals and cattle are among the main resources for the population.
Potentially satellite imagery could assist in identifying potential pastureland, even at the end of the dry season.
Knowledge of the weather is also vital. Previously the nomads had to rely on experience to survive in this sometimes-hostile environment, but now meteorological data from satellites can help predict conditions.
Whether it’s drought, thundering floods, swarms of locusts or parasitic plants, all make for a fragile ecosystem.
But there’s an unseen eye keeping constant watch over Africa – and indeed other continents – from way above their heads: satellites.
And Europe is contributing with ENVISAT, the huge earth observation satellite from the European Space Agency.
At the Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome, they use satellite data to follow coverage of vegetation and weather conditions virtually in real time.
That gives scientists a valuable forecasting tool and to some degree, an early-warning system.
Jeff Tschirley is the Chief of the Environment and Climate Change Unit at the FAO. He concedes that satellite data could go a lot further and that sometime is would be useful to have even more of the information that they provide.
Just outside Rome, in Frascati, data from different ESA satellites converge at the Centre for Earth Observation, ESRIN.
ESRIN’s have receivers for the European satellite Artemis, which relays data from an instrument called MERIS on board the earth observation satellite ENVISAT.
The satellite takes pictures of global vegetation every two or three days.
By analysing these images we can create a map showing how the ground is covered on a scale never before achieved.
By comparing the maps chronologically, scientists can study the development of ground coverage, humidity and the climate.
This data can then be used to create models for more accurate forecasting.
Africa needs to feed an ever-expanding population.
In Ethiopia, the population was 27 million in 1970, it’s 80 million today, and it’s reckoned to become 120 million in 15 years.
In a country with a high dependency on agriculture and pastoral grazing, satellite data that helps in the prediction of conditions becomes an invaluable tool in the fight against food scarcity.