Geospatial Tech for Water Security: Making Waves in 100 Priority Basins
Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and the situation is expected to continually worsen over the next decade. The combination of climate change and biodiversity loss has profound effects on where changing rainfall and runoff patterns place intense pressure on local water resources.
Water, food security and climate change are directly interlinked: statistics from the World Food Programme in 2022 showed that 345 million people across 82 countries face acute food insecurity, exacerbated by increased risks of flooding and drought. Water underpins all elements of sustainable development, intersecting with gender inequality, extreme poverty, education, health, biodiversity, disaster response, peace and human rights and more.
These issues are close to my heart, and I’ve spent my career to date focusing on enabling data-driven, sustainable decision-making through the provision of geospatial insights, previously at Risilience, and the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Knowing where something is happening, in addition to the what, when and how, is crucial when addressing location-specific issues. While the effect on climate change remains the same regardless of where carbon is emitted, the impacts thereof will vary drastically from place to place. Even more so, the loss of natural resources and the impact of nature-based solutions can only be addressed in a local context.
In my new role as geospatial lead for Oxford Earth Observation (OxEO), I will drive the development of geospatial algorithms to better understand sustainable development issues, focusing on water as a priority, and addressing them from multiple angles. There is a lot of potential in using spatial data for water availability and quality analysis, both on the demand and supply side. By leveraging data from local measurements, satellites, aerial surveys and national statistics, we can build a comprehensive picture of the situation on the ground, starting with the 100 priority basins, defined by the CEO Water Mandate as the biggest opportunity basins for collective water risk action.
At OxEO, we believe that by providing geospatial, decision-useful data, we can tackle the three major problems facing the water sector: firstly, the mistrust between key stakeholders that prevents data sharing and project implementation, which can be tackled by providing transparent and easily understandable methodologies. Second, barriers to scaling projects beyond the pilot phase, which can be overcome by providing open, globally accessible data and capacity building in priority areas. And lastly, fixed-capital investments can be made more sustainable by providing data that ensures investors account for long-term maintenance costs of water infrastructure.
Advances in geospatial technology and an influx of open-source, high-resolution datasets allow us to address the intersection of water and food security, for example, by understanding the impacts of drought on crop growth. This has important implications for more climate-resilient agriculture, as we better understand which locations and crop types will be hit hardest under different water stress, climate, population and economic growth projections, down to the sub-basin level. With this information, the public sector, community groups, businesses and financial institutions will be able to better prepare for and respond to water-related risks. Our tools aim to improve planning and policymaking, ultimately leading to improved decision-making for mobilizing investment to where it is most needed.
However, data is not the end of the journey. Strengthening local capacity to contribute to and act on data and information is critical, as too often data initiatives designed to benefit affected communities fail to realize sustainable development outcomes due to a lack of uptake. At OxEO, we are building a global network of basin specialists with expertise and connections in all our focus areas, to enable partnerships, trust and data sharing. The World Water Forum in May 2024 will provide another opportunity to continue the discussion on how organizational innovation can ensure equitable and impactful data use.
The generation and application of decision-useful data to support critical investment and action for water security is an exciting journey. Over the coming months, we will be advancing our understanding of the water supply and agricultural demand dynamics in the Zambezi River Basin to create a prototype of repeatable, robust and transparent methods for geospatial data science as one tool of many that can bring us toward a more sustainable, livable and equitable future.
I’m always happy to chat with like-minded people about how to tackle these challenges more collaboratively — so if you are interested in discussing further, please contact Sara Pruckner at [email protected].