Satellite Data, Applications Flowing Through SERVIR to Southeast Asia

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
May 7, 2023
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Satellite Data, Applications Flowing Through SERVIR to Southeast Asia
The Chao Phraya River flowing through Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Credits: NASA

More than 50 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar draw water for drinking and agriculture from the Mekong River. With customized tools that use NASA observations and data, the people who manage that water supply have been improving their decision-making. It is a prime example of the work NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been doing to make Earth data more accessible and useful in countries around the world.

Historically, reservoir measurements or flood warnings along the Mekong River came from stream gauges and limited or outdated satellite data, said Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission. But in recent years, scientists in the region have worked with colleagues from NASA, USAID, and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC) to build tools that process data from Earth-observing satellites and better predict extreme rainfall and track reservoir levels.

“Our collaboration enhanced the accuracy and lead time of the Mekong River Commission’s flood forecasting,” Kittikhoun said. “As climate change intensifies and development accelerates, we will work together to get better information into the hands of farmers and communities in order to make them more resilient and adaptable.”

Learning and Building Together

The work springs out of SERVIR, an initiative first launched in 2004 by NASA and USAID. With a name derived from the Spanish word “to serve,” SERVIR builds collaborative projects and conducts training to help bring Earth data into regional, national, and local decision-making. Working with scientists and agencies around the world, SERVIR has established five science hubs scattered across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

“Collaborative development leads to geospatial services that fit community needs,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters. “The approach creates an environment where teams learn from one another. This fosters a stronger, more inclusive approach to Earth science – accelerating discovery and uptake of that science.”

The Mekong water-observing tools were developed through the SERVIR-Mekong program, which was founded in 2014 with ADPC in Thailand. A series of positive collaborations inspired the partners to expand their work in the region with the renamed SERVIR-Southeast Asia.

“We made such an impact in recent years as SERVIR-Mekong, and I’m excited about being able to work alongside more partners to enable their use of NASA’s Earth science to address their most pressing environmental issues,” said Nancy Searby, NASA’s Earth Sciences program manager responsible for SERVIR. “While there are unique concerns in each place, our data, methods, and services can be tailored to address those needs.”

Beyond the river-monitoring tools, scientists affiliated with the program also created a tool to automatically interpret atmospheric data from NASA satellites and share it through Thailand’s Pollution Control Department. Named the Mekong Air Quality Explorer, the tool includes a mobile app that authorities use to identify sources of heavy smoke and pollution, track air flow, and help officials send out public health warnings about poor air quality. The World Health Organization estimates that pollution leads to as many as 2 million premature deaths per year in Southeast Asia.

Scaling Up, Reaching Out

In a January 2023 ceremony marking the expansion of SERVIR Southeast Asia, project leaders described some of the new geospatial services they will offer, such as tools for tracking forest loss and for helping the rice growers prepare for climate change. The new hub also will expand its range across borders and into countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.

The key to SERVIR’s work in Asia and elsewhere is that the best partnerships grow out of dialogue and exchanges of ideas, not one-sided conversations. U.S. researchers are actively encouraged to ask what partners might need and how they can work alongside them to co-develop solutions, rather than just flooding colleagues with data.

“The Air Quality Explorer that was adopted by Thailand will be scaled up to address transboundary haze issues between Thailand and Laos, and eventually across Southeast Asia,” said Peeranan Towashiraporn, SERVIR-Southeast Asia’s chief of party. “Similarly, the satellite-based tools for monitoring of flood and drought, successfully adopted by the Mekong River Commission, will be scaled out to support early warning systems in other countries in the region.”

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