Most water is undrinkable—about 97% due to saline content—and another 2% is locked in icecaps and glaciers, leaving that measly percent for agriculture and human consumption.
This is why conservation and finding silver bullet ways to secure good water to grow crops and to drink is critical on a planet that will have nine billion people by the year 2050. It’s estimated that there will only be sufficient year-around useable water for a third of the population, primarily because water is inequitably distributed throughout the world.
This is where innovative companies in South Africa, Vietnam, and Ghana enter the picture, where three for-profit companies monitoring and forecasting weather for farmers are approaching weather science in different ways:
CEO and founder Dr. Muthoni Masinde at CUT/ITIKI (Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence) in South Africa; founder Liisa Smits in Stockholm, and COO Lizzie Merrill in Ghana at Ignitia, and founder and CEO Nguyen Khac Minh Tri and COO Lan Ahn Le at MimosaTEK in Vietnam.
The results in water savings and crop yields are impressive thus far, and weather forecasting is crucial due to drought and flooding.
All three have one thing in common: They have taken regional and technical approaches to increase crop yields of mostly small farmers and to predict drought while saving water.
In Bloemfontein, South Africa, on the CUT (Central University of Technology) campus Dr. Masinde has combined her meteorological and computer science training with indigenous historical knowledge of the region. This has led to farmers in increasing yields by 10% in South Africa, Kenya, and Mozambique.
We’re talking decreeing weather patterns by factoring in the prevalence and characteristics of crickets, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and beetles and factoring the information into scientific computer models. The idea stemmed from stories her mother told her in Kenya, who had learned from her mother.
She recently attended a World Bank Water conference in DC in which she described the process in the two minutes she was given during a host of another presentation. Her main message: “It works, and the proof is in the results.”
The weather data is transmitted to farmers over SMS messaging in language the farmers can understand, and is localized to specific areas and languages. The cost is kept at a minimum to be affordable. “The localized weather forecast let farmers know when to plant and the best times for fertilization. Traditional weather projections are difficult for farmers to understand, and they lack the specificity that farmers need” said Masinde.
In another part of Africa, Ignitia serves a burgeoning client base in Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Senegal, covering 745,000 households and benefitting and estimated 4.7 million customers and other end users. “While a standard forecast might cover 25 square kilometers, ours zeroes in on a three square kilometer area,” said Ms. Merrell. “Standard forecasting might show fair weather across the region, but yet there could be a micro-storm on a farmer’s specific crop location.”
This is particularly important in tropical areas such as West Africa, a few degrees above the Equator.
“For instance, in Ghana, the weather is caused mostly by convection—causing those smaller scale storms—while in non-tropical areas it is often driven by large-scale temperature differences and high and low-pressure areas,” she added. “Weather simply does not develop as fast in non-tropical areas.” Though no weather report is 100% accurate, Ignitia’s forecast have helped farmers make better planting and harvesting decisions, which have improved crop yields.
MimosaTEK, headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, performs a different function by providing technology gathered from sensors placed in fields and greenhouses to measure every aspect of the weather and feed the information back to farmers, including soil moisture, temperature and wind speed. “Providing real-time information, the sensors give guidance on irrigation schedules through a smartphone app. Farmers can then plan accordingly how much water to use,” said Le.
“In certain areas of Vietnam, farmers were actually wasting water simply because over-watering is what they had always done,” she said.
These enterprises were funded by four governments under a program known as Securing Water for Food (SWFF). They are, in essence, sophisticated climate prognosticators in regions that depend on accurate forecasts for their livelihoods, areas plagued by drought or, perhaps, too much rain.
Granted these innovations represent baby steps in tackling global food and water issues. However, the hope and the promise are that these programs can be scaled up and multiplied around the world and also, that these innovations will lead to even more creative thinking.
“It’s a promising start,” said Dr. Ku McMahan the USAID official who oversees the SWFF program and coordinates the activities with the governments of the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden, countries also contributing to the five-year-old program.
Overall, there were 1,500 innovation projects worldwide competing for funds and only 40 innovators operating in 35 countries were chosen, including these three targeting more effective weather forecasting.
“It’s an urgent issue. Some innovators have significant potential,” said McMahan. “The results in water savings and crop yields are impressive thus far, and weather forecasting is crucial due to drought and flooding.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.