Drought is often the precursor to disaster, but getting leads on its stealthy approach through remote or war-torn areas can be so difficult that relief agencies sometimes have little time to react before a bad situation becomes a calamity.
The problem is that there is often no easy way to get data about water supplies in these areas — water monitoring stations don't exist, or they don't work, or they are simply too dangerous to operate. Groups such as AGRHYMET, an intergovernmental hydrology, agricultural and food security agency based in Niger, often have to rely on far-flung observers, often volunteers, to obtain the information manually.
"AGRHYMET conducts the drought monitoring for the whole of West Africa from Cape Verde and Mauritania to Chad and Nigeria," said Abdou Ali, a senior scientist with the organization. "Many areas of this region are drought prone. The ground-based data is not enough and even when the data exists, the transmission system is very weak."
But researchers at Princeton University have come up with an approach that dodges those problems and uses satellite data and historical records to track drought as it emerges. Experts believe their monitoring project, installed this month at AGRHYMET's research center in Niamey, Niger, may go a long way in addressing problems related to drought that have long plagued Africa.
A conversation at a 2006 international conference on the hydrological impacts of climate change led to a working arrangement between the Princeton team and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
"Africa is a priority for UNESCO, so it fits very well into the strategy to make sure that we have a system in place to have an early warning on drought," said Siegfried Demuth, chief of hydrological systems for UNESCO's Division of Water Sciences. "We are looking to provide the knowledge base, the tools, with which countries can be better prepared."
NASA is also involved in the program.