Satellite data to improve climate resilience in the MENA region

Outcome story

Morocco is prone to drought and already experiencing more extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change. Where in the past there might have been a drought every 10 years or so, more recently, farmers have endured droughts twice or even three times in a decade. More than half of Moroccans live in rural areas and two-thirds work in agriculture, so the consequences of drought can be severe.

The aim of the MENAdrought project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is to produce an integrated approach to drought management in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon, bringing advanced digital monitoring, and vulnerability understanding and action planning. This included early-warning systems that give countries time to prepare and direct help where it is needed the most, rather than waiting for a full-scale emergency. Under IWMI’s leadership, MENAdrought brings together global experts on areas including climate, remote sensing, water management, plant physiology and the politics of drought management to work with national stakeholders who understand conditions on the ground.

Morocco has now made available one of the core products of the project, which is a satellite map that gives a detailed picture of water availability.

The map compiles information on rainfall, land surface temperature, soil moisture and vegetation health to create a color-coded enhanced Composite Drought Index.

In September, as the country awaits the winter rains that characterize the Mediterranean climate, most of the map is red. As the rains start to fall, and the growing season begins, the map turns green. However, lower than expected rainfall and higher temperatures will change the index for some places from green to yellow. That can signal the start of an agricultural drought.

As the lack of water starts to affect the plants, they reflect less shortwave infrared light than healthy plants. The satellite detects this, and the drought map codes places that were yellow as red, suggesting that the start of a drought is underway.

The map can often detect an emerging drought before any effects can be seen on the ground, as the data changes from week to week. This provides an opportunity to take rapid action, for example, by limiting irrigation in specific areas.

The current focus of the project is the Souss-Massa region in the southwest of Morocco where most of the country’s rain-fed cereals are grown. The project is checking past droughts in the region to identify the specific conditions that indicate different levels of water scarcity. This will make the maps easier to use and improve responses to drought.

According to IWMI researchers, investigating past droughts will make it possible to trigger drought warnings automatically and allow faster mitigation responses.

Looking beyond Souss-Massa, the project is supporting the generation of maps for the whole of Morocco, especially to improve how pastoral herders deal with drought. Traditionally, sheep and goat herds have grazed widely on rangelands across the country, but drought and misuse are degrading the range. The rise in the number and severity of droughts has forced some nomadic herders to look for new grazing lands, leading to tension with settled farmers and growers around oases.

The country has laws to control the use of rangelands and the movement of flocks, but they are difficult to enforce. With up-to-date and accurate drought maps, authorities will be in a much better position to forecast where drought will affect grazing lands. This will allow them to direct herders and their flocks to places where the vegetation is healthier. Not only will the herders benefit as their animals have enough to eat, but drought-affected rangelands will be spared the additional damage caused by overgrazing.

Morocco’s decision to publish the maps is welcome, because it could prompt other countries to copy this approach and make them more resilient in the face of climate change.

Morocco, along with Jordan and Lebanon (the other two countries covered by the MENAdrought project), will benefit from an increased ability to prepare for and respond to more frequent and severe droughts caused as a result of climate change.

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