Predicting droughts and floods in Zambia using Google Earth Engine

AICCRA Zambia and the Digital Innovation for Water Secure Africa (DIWASA) initiative organized training on the use of earth observation data and Google Earth Engine to monitor for early warnings of floods and droughts.

In Zambia’s 2022-21 rainy season, half a million households were adversely affected by floods that also caused massive crop failures. AICCRA works with Zambian partners to empower them in novel uses of Google services that help better predict extreme weather events and take mitigating actions. 

Researchers, analysts and statisticians gathered in Lusaka recently to collectively build their capacity use of Google Earth Engine to monitor earth observation data for early warning signs of flood and drought.

The benefits of the technology, when understood and applied correctly are immense for government, business, non-profit and academic users.

Dr. Giriraj Amarnath of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) led the training to strengthen the capacities of government agencies in managing agriculture disaster risk and dissemination of critical knowledge products in Earth Engine and Earth Observation Data.

Working collaboratively with AICCRA Zambia and the DIWASA initiative, the workshop has brought representatives from institutions such as the Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU), Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA), Zambia Meteorological Department (ZMD), Red Cross, Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI), Zambia Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA) and the National Remote Sensing Center together.

Critical questions being discussed at the workshop include what future climate conditions will be like, how they will impact water and agricultural systems, and how Zambia can lessen the impacts.

Presentation of certificates to trainees 

Why use Google Earth Engine?

Google Earth Engine helps answer these questions by providing easy, web-based access to an extensive catalog of satellite imagery and other geospatial data in an analysis-ready format. 

It hosts satellite imagery and stores it in a public data archive that includes historical earth images going back more than forty years. The data is completely free to use, and the images captured on a daily basis are then made available for global-scale data mining.

The engine provide a wide range of benefits such as assessing future climate extremes, predicting agricultural changes, analysis of forest and water coverage, and enhancing the monitoring and management of extreme events.

For Micheal Phiri, who is Senior Geospatial Analyst at the National Remote Sensing Centre, Earth Engine is already a familiar technology.

Specializing in integrated water resources management, Google Earth Engine helps people like him monitor and keep account of national water resources.

Monitoring land and water resources means Michael can figure out the country’s risks and vulnerabilities in relation to disaster management.

Through the workshop is gaining exposure to more data monitoring tools.

“This is a field most people don’t know about and so this workshop helps promote it. You need promotion for people to go looking for the tools and to be more aware that this technology exists. As more people start learning it exists, there will be a greater demand for it and once you have the demand you will get your advancements,” Michael says.

Kanyanga Kanyanga of the Zambia Statistics Agency (ZSA) is involved in data collection, processing and analysis.

Coming from an institution that provides data for use by various stakeholders, the workshop is significant as it contributes the type of data that the ZSA collects and distributes for planning, policy implementation and research purposes.

“On a national scale, the data collected through such technology is useful for saving lives and saving resources. Instead of us being reactive to situations that are caused by floods and droughts, it allows us to be proactive,” Kanyanga says.

Africa’s vulnerability to climate change has increased over the last decade according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The continent is more vulnerable due to multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity and there is a higher likelihood of extreme rainfall events related to monsoons.

During the 2020/2021 rainy season, Zambia experienced floods in various districts, leading to an emergency situation requiring the provision of relief through the government and key partners.

Preliminary assessments conducted in Zambia’s ten provinces showed that more than 500,000 households were affected by flooding in more than 60 districts due to crop failure, collapse of infrastructure such as roads, and secondary impacts on health and education.

Zambia is still in its infancy with the use of technology such as Earth Engine and yet to develop its own satellite systems. With greater investment in data monitoring systems, the country can build greater adaptation and resilience, promote sustainable agriculture, build healthy ecosystems and grow its economy.

Data from Google Earth Engine technology availed to all relevant stakeholders and interlinked government departments and ministries can contribute to greater agricultural productivity by allowing farmers to make more well-timed decisions and overall translate to national economic growth.

Winnie Kasoma Pele is Communications Specialist for AICCRA Zambia