When Him Lal Shrestha wants to know what is happening on the ground affecting Nepalese farmers, he shoots a glance up—way up to an orbiting satellite. That great big white ball on the top of his building helps bring life-saving data down to earth. Here’s how.
Shrestha is a Remote Sensing Analyst at the USAID-funded SERVIR Himalaya initiative. He showed me around his facility and explained how satellite imagery can tell us what is happening to land in Nepal and across the countries surrounding the scenic Hindu Kush Himalayas.
Pointing to his screen, he explains how land cover, particularly in agriculture and forest, in many areas of Nepal is being depleted — a serious issue that will affect how local people plant, harvest and survive. It’s also a huge concern for government officials who are trying to thwart potential calamities that could make things tougher for people just trying to make ends meet.
Shrestha describes what he sees on his screen. “In the case of Nepal, from 1990 to the current year, we see remarkable pressure on the land cover changes,” he said. “Land cover is a function of population growth; because of population growth, there is urbanization. So ultimately there is pressure on the forest coverage,” he said, adding that the survey work is important internationally because “we are discussing reducing emission from the deforestation and degradation.”
Helping people understand forest cover and other development challenges at home and across borders is the goal of this USAID effort in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Some of the tools help people detect forest fires hidden behind mountain ranges and send SMS messages to firefighters so they can speed off in pursuit in less than an hour.
“It is hard to fix a problem that you cannot see,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a recent visit to Nepal. Dr. Shah believes that by harnessing science and technology, “we can put critical information in the hands of the people most affected by natural disasters.”
Other tools keep a big eye on glacier melts leading to water flows and help monitor food production and estimate crop yields to better inform the Nepal government so they can make critical decisions ahead of time to avoid famine and all the suffering that comes with it. Similarly, other governments in the region can use satellite imagery of land conditions within their borders to make informed decisions.
According to Bronwyn Llewellyn, Environment Team Leader at USAID Nepal, a lack of transparency in decision-making is an issue to tackle across the region. “Science and technology can help a lot with that transparency. It’s a tool that is accessed by everyone online. By creating tools that cross boundaries, you are creating a language of science that can be used across the borders. So everyone is looking at the same tool and making the same decisions.”
So what’s USAID’s vision for this science-based development mapping toolkit? Governments across the region need the big picture. And the satellite data it collects enables them to track global climate change and make more informed decisions about land and water use that impact their countries’ future.