Assessing climate vulnerability of West African food security using remote sensing observations

Assessing climate vulnerability of West African food security using remote sensing observations
Dara Entekhabi, Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor, Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

Period of performance: 

September 2018 to August 2020
hydrology, climate models, sub-saharan africa, remote sensing, climate change, africa, irrigation, rain


In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) food  security is vulnerable due to a number of co-existing factors that combine to create one of the most challenging food security problems in the world:

  1. Food production is mostly rain-fed;
  2. the rainy season is only three months long and has large international variability in the timing of its onset and intensity;
  3. the population growth in the region is among the highest in the world and, unlike other regions, projected to only increase in the coming decades.

This means that the food security problem in the Sub-Saharan Africa is integrally tied to the onset, duration, and intensity of the rainy season.  In this project, Entekhabi and his team will apply new tools for data analysis to answer the following questions:

  1. How does the crop production in SSA respond to year-to-year variation in rainy season timing and intensity, i.e. how vulnerable is the SSA crop production to climate?
  2. How will SSA crop production shift in response to climate change?

To address the first question, reliable data on historical crop production and historical precipitation are required.  However, while climate records exist, crop production records are scant.   Therefore the team will produce a map of crops that captures data across decades using observations from space-born remote sensing instruments.  The new crop maps, when juxtaposed against the large year-to-year variations in climate records will enable the team to quantify the vulnerability of the SSA food production system to climate variability.

To address the second question, the team will use climate model projections of shifts in the West Africa Monsoon to assess changes to SSA food security.  Their technique will involve an analysis of the reliable and resolved fields in climate models.  This multi-model estimate of shifts in the West Africa Monsoon for the remainder of the 21st century will be used in conjunction with the quantified climate-vulnerability to assess the future of food security in Sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades.

This project will involve an academic-industry partnership with Radiant Earth – a start-up whose scope is to provide a geospatial and imagery technology platform that supports knowledge transfer to positively impact the developing world’s greatest social challenges.  Radiant Earth will provide advanced space technologies to facilitate data collection and analysis.

The research team includes Prof. Dara Entekhabi, who is in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Sarah Fletcher, who is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at MIT, and is also affiliated with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.