Ethiopia was once a fertile breadbasket, able to sustain life and produce many different agricultural products in addition to supporting plant and animal life. Over time Ethiopia and the region around it has become less fertile as the population has boomed and water has become more and more scarce.
Ethiopia experienced its worst drought in decades in 2015. The drought has continued into 2016, as April has been dryer than usual in most of the nation. Researchers are using satellite data in order to determine what part of the country is at the most risk, and where water may still be found. Inadequate rainfall has already affected Ethiopia’s crop production which runs in part because of a March-May rainy season.
NASA has created a soil moisture map based on their Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite. The satellite maps the moisture in the top five centimeters of the soil and uses colors to determine how much moisture the soil contains.
Ethiopia still has a few weeks left to go in its rainy season, and weather reports show that some more rain may fall in the parts of the country that need it the most. Agricultural efforts in Ethiopia’s highland region could help make up for the food deficit the country faces, but only if the rain comes through.
Another way researchers determine the moisture content of soil is by using a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index. This index shows how plants absorb visible light; vegetation growing in drought regions reflects more visible light and less infrared than plants that are receiving enough water.
NASA compares soil moisture over a few years to determine where water is being lost and maps it to show the changes over time. They can also do this with plant life to show the growth or decline across years and seasons. While this data is valuable and can help show the overall health of Ethiopia’s land, many Ethiopians are still feeling the effects of droughts over recent years.
Soil Moisture in Ethiopia, NASA Earth Observatory, April 19, 2016.