Guiding Farmers with NASA Satellites

Narration: Joy Ng


The Indus River has been a lifeline to farmers for thousands of years where skills and knowledge have been passed down from generation to generation.

Our children are farmers, learned farming from elders, we’ve been doing it for generations.

Now, using NASA satellites, the next generation are experimenting with new tricks of the trade.

Flowing for almost two thousand miles, the Indus River provides freshwater for watering crops in four countries.

In Pakistan, 90 percent of agriculture work relies on surface water and groundwater from the river.

But over the past few decades, populations have grown and these freshwater resources have become scarce.

Earlier this season, the groundwater level was low.

We drilled a well near our house, but it stopped producing after one week.

The cotton was short last year and it was not just a loss for a single farmer, but for all of Pakistan.

Two, three generations ago, when water was plentiful, they had more water than what they needed to grow crops.

This is Faisal Hossain. He leads a research group at the University of Washington that explores how developing countries can use water more sustainably.

But as the demand grew, they had to grow more crops and when they didn't have enough surface water, they were pumping it from the ground.

Today, it has become one of the most depleted basins in the world, which, compounded with high crop demands, is cause for concern.

We farmers are in real crisis because one crop is being harvested while the next is made ready for planting -- continuously.

To tackle this, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources want to help farmers look beneath the soil.

You need to know the rainfall, the weather conditions, and the crop condition.

We get a lot of that from satellites — NASA satellite missions such as the GPM, the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission.

With help from Faisal’s research group, they’re attempting to give a clear picture of the water available in the land allowing farmers to see exactly how much they need to irrigate and avoid under or overwatering crops, which can hinder crop growth.

Using NASA satellites and ground sensors, scientists are gathering weather measurements like temperature, wind speed, pressure, humidity and solar radiation­­.

Combining that information with weather prediction models they have created the Irrigation Advisory System.

This provides real-time estimates of the amount of water that evaporates through sunlight and wind.

In short, scientists can analyze how much water specific crops need.

Dark regions show a higher demand of water. Light regions show a lower demand of water.

This indicates that crops in different parts of the country require different amounts of water.

These calculations are done throughout the country for different crops and are analyzed with rainfall measurements from NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement mission.

Then, they’re turned into weekly instructions sent to farmers’ cell phones.

“Dear farmer friend, we would like to inform you that the irrigation need for your banana crop was 2 inches during the past week.”

Whether it's a flip phone or a smartphone, it has pretty good penetration even in developing countries.

Since the program began in Pakistan in 2016, it has grown from 700 farmers to more than 100,000.

And now, the system has expanded to India and Bangladesh – other countries who are also scarce in water.

Having access to this information is not only important now, but it will be critical as our planet continues to change.

We believe that access is a fundamental human right.

I see the future where every farmer, wherever they are, are easily able to tap into this information.