Global water resources are being rapidly exploited through unprecedented population growth and widespread unsustainable management practices. The current pace, magnitude and spatial reach of humankinds impact on water resources is now a very real concern for future development and peace. In simple terms this means that water resources are being polluted and over-exploited on scales never witnessed before. Currently, millions of people still live without access to safe drinking water, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Agricultural irrigation remains by far the largest consumer of freshwater resources, accounting for about 70% of freshwater use, with this number expected to increase by a further 20% by 2050.
In response to the widespread recognition of impending water scarcity, in January 2015, the World Economic Forum declared the water crisis as one of the highest global risks. However, despite this growing concern, a water crisis can be viewed as management crisis, that can be mitigated through the application of best-practices and sound water management policy.
Considering the significant risks of letting a potential water crisis unfold unabated, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved in September 2015, set specific targets for water (SDG 6). This ambitious SDG aims to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. One of the central pathways outlined to achieve this goal is through integrated water resources management (IWRM) at multiple levels, including transboundary cooperation (cf. SDG Target 6.5). The successful implementation and monitoring of IWRM initiatives requires access to reliable data and information on key water related challenges. There is now a growing awareness that Earth Observation (EO) data has the potential to serve these data needs. This is especially relevant in the context of Official Developing Assistance (ODA), which normally target regions where policies and management decisions are more often based on sparse and unreliable information.
Since 2008 the European Space Agency (ESA) has worked closely with International Financing Institutions (IFIs) and Client States to harness the benefits of EO for global sustainable development. Earth Observation for Sustainable Development (EO4SD) is a new ESA initiative which aims at increasing the uptake of EO-based information in regular development operations at the national and international level.
Specifically, for water resource management the EO4SD will seek to demonstrate the benefits and utility of EO services in response to stakeholder requirements for water resources monitoring and management at local to basin scales.
Some of the key water related priority areas where EO-based geo-information is needed include:
- River basin characterization and change monitoring (e.g. hydrological network mapping, long-term climate change analysis)
- Water supply and sanitation (e.g. monitoring of water quality, extent and level of lakes and rivers to support management for agricultural, industrial and urban water use)
- Hydrological management (e.g. modeling and forecasts of runoff, river discharge and groundwater abstraction)
- Water productivity (e.g. mapping of biomass production, evapotranspiration and crop type)
- Risk management of natural hydrological hazards (e.g. mapping and forecasting of flooding, drought, landslides)
- Industrial activity assessment (e.g. monitoring of freshwater fisheries, aquaculture, hydropower and mining)
The EO4SD portfolio represent the EO-based information services which can support key priority issues for water resource management and planning.