Articles & Stories

Water Resources and Hydroclimatic Disasters Service Area


Water is one of the most important natural resources, supporting the most basic human needs and maintaining the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth. Water is central to most economic activity, including agriculture, energy production, and industry. Pressures on water resources are rising primarily due to rapid urbanization, unequal distribution, deforestation, pollution, extreme drought, and other weather and climate factors. These pressures are exacerbated by over usage and poor management of water resources.

Water-related disasters such as floods and droughts have become more frequent worldwide - due in part to climate variability - and are also the most economically and socially destructive. Since the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992, floods, droughts, and storms have affected 4.2 billion people (95 percent of all people affected by disasters) and caused US$1.3 trillion of damage (63 percent of all damage). Water-related disasters pose both direct impacts – loss of life and property, displaced populations, plus damage to buildings, crops, and infrastructure – as well as indirect impacts such as lost productivity and livelihoods, and increased investment risk. The rising economic cost of water-related disasters should be a motivating factor for governments to invest more in preparedness, prevention, and addressing the root causes of vulnerability.

Water resources and hydroclimatic disasters is one of SERVIR’s four thematic service areas.* The focus of this service area is to work with regional and national institutions on the use of Earth observation and geospatial technologies for improved mapping of water resources and water management. SERVIR hubs are at the forefront in developing high-quality water information, tools, products, and services that enable partner countries to monitor, measure, and report on water resources and changes, and to better predict and manage water-related disasters.

The following four examples highlight some of the innovative services and tools that support SERVIR’s work on water resources and hydroclimatic disasters in each of the hubs, empowering decision-makers to better address critical issues related to this service area.

See below for interviews with SERVIR team members working on these services.

Global map showing SERVIR hubs and countries with four services pinpointed


Ephemeral Water Body Monitoring
SERVIR-West Africa

Two pastoralists receive information by cell phone
Pastoralists receiving information on the location 
of ephemeral water bodies during the dry season 
in the Ferlo. Photo credit: USAID/West Africa 

The Ferlo region of north-central Senegal is a vast expanse of dry savannah covering over a third of the country’s total area. With only a few small, scattered settlements, this region is almost exclusively reserved for pastoralism, both by tradition and government policy. The region is characterized by an extremely dry climate with a long dry season – up to nine months of the year – making living conditions very difficult.

During the rainy season from July to September, water and forage are fairly abundant for livestock. But, during the dry season that extends through June, pastoralists rely on ephemeral water bodies – temporary ponds that hold remnants of water left over from the rainy season – to sustain their animals. In the past, local populations could rely on historical knowledge, passed on from generation to generation, to find these watering holes during the dry season. However, changing weather patterns have made the historical knowledge less reliable, requiring a different approach.

After multiple consultations with key stakeholders, the SERVIR-West Africa consortium partner, Senegal-based Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE), developed an innovative solution to help address this problem. Using free and open source satellite imagery from NASA’s Landsat suite and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellites, SERVIR launched a new service that provides accurate and timely information concerning the availability of water in all parts of the Ferlo throughout the dry season.

This service monitors the location of watering holes and produces high-resolution maps with sufficient accuracy to assist local authorities with decision-making on natural resource management. Once fully operational, the forecasts generated by this system will be disseminated directly to affected populations through cell phone text messages and local radio broadcasts.

Guiding Flood Protection in Kenya
SERVIR-Eastern and Southern Africa

Nzoia River flooding
Nzoia River during a flood  

Like many rivers across the world, the Nzoia River in western Kenya overtops its banks with seasonal flooding. The river often bursts through dikes, flooding the low-lying land around it. When floods occur, thousands of people become marooned or have to be evacuated from the banks of the swollen river, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

To protect lives and property in Kenya, SERVIR-Eastern and Southern Africa at the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development used the SERVIR Flood Map Tool to provide high-accuracy flood level scenario maps to the World Bank to guide their flood protection dike repairs.

This tool incorporates high-resolution elevation data from both NASA and commercial satellites to develop a hydrologic model that shows the relationship between stream flow and water elevation above the streambed, thus determining locations most likely to experience floods. Based on this information, the World Bank’s Water Security and Resilience Project provided financial assistance to design and implement repairs to the dikes where they were needed most, helping vulnerable populations better withstand future flooding.

Improving Flood Forecasting in Bangladesh
SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya

screenshot of tool on FFWC website
Screenshot of flood forecasting tool  

Bangladesh is home to over 160 million people. This densely populated country – about the size of the land area of the state of Michigan – sits in the “sink” of the second largest river basin in the world, the Ganges-Brahmapurta-Meghna river basin.

These three rivers originate thousands of miles away in India, Nepal, China, and Bhutan and pass through Bangladesh to then drain into the Bay of Bengal. With the combined effect of heavy rains, snow melt from the Himalayas, and rising sea levels, the rivers can swell to 20 times their normal widths. In some years, 75 percent of the country may be under floodwaters.

SERVIR –Hindu Kush Himalaya, at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), helped the government of Bangladesh increase flood warning lead time from five days, in the best case, to as many as eight days. These extra days provide vulnerable populations with more time to evacuate, saving lives and property, and allowing for the pre-positioning of emergency supplies. For years, the Bangladesh Flood Forecasting and Warning Center (FFWC) has used ground-based stations to monitor river flow volume. However, with more than 90 percent of the drainage flows generated beyond Bangladesh’s borders and lack of data sharing by upstream countries, it has been impossible to accurately predict the volume of water headed for Bangladesh. Based on available ground station data, the FFWC has only been able to issue flood forecasts up to five days in advance.

SERVIR trained FFWC personnel to use data from NASA’s Jason-2 satellite, unrestrained by political boundaries, to track levels of the Ganges and Brahmapurta Rivers in the neighboring countries upstream of Bangladesh and produce daily eight-day flood forecasts of water levels for several water monitoring stations. FFWC can now compare satellite-informed early warnings with their existing operational system. More information on this application can be found here:

Surface Water Mapping Tool

view of Lower Mekong river and surrounding countryside
Lower Mekong River  

Surface water distribution changes over space and time and these patterns can provide insight into ecological structure and function, patterns of flooding and flood risk, and the impacts of infrastructure and climate change on landscapes and hydrological systems. However, such patterns have been difficult to track and measure over large areas and longer time spans. With increased access to large volumes of remotely sensed data and innovative techniques for optimizing the processing and interpretation of those data using offsite cloud storage, critical information is now within reach of even the poorest countries and communities. The Surface Water Mapping tool leverages the extensive archive of Landsat data in the Google Earth Engine archive and Google’s cloud processing power to quickly calculate past patterns of surface water extent from multiple layers of Landsat imagery. The tool consists of a Google Earth Engine application and a user friendly web interface which allows the user to specify the period evaluated and other calculation parameters that are then executed in a cloud service. Results are displayed on screen and can be downloaded for specified areas.

The Surface Water Mapping Tool was initially developed to document the historical dynamics of seasonal flooding cycles on the Mekong River in order to better understand some of the likely impacts of completed and proposed dams. Other uses include flood risk assessment for disaster preparedness, identifying areas of permanent water (valuable in the context of severe drought response), and numerous water resources management applications. Specific uses include assessing the variable flood risk in areas susceptible to flooding, identifying areas of significant seasonal inundation (to identify and maintain key ecological processes), and tracking changes in river courses to anticipate land erosion and accretion (accumulation of sediments) for planning and risk assessment.

These four examples highlight just a few of the many geospatial services SERVIR has produced to help people in developing countries make better informed decisions related to water resources and hydroclimatic disaster management that are cost-effective in even the poorest jurisdictions. With new services in development, innovative partnerships, cutting-edge science and an expanding network of hubs, SERVIR looks forward to increasing the use of Earth observing data as it continues to connect space to village.

Click on the links below to read interviews from Thematic Leads and specialists from across the SERVIR Global network who support the Water Resources and Hydroclimatic Disasters service area:


*SERVIR connects space to village by helping developing countries use satellite data to address challenges in food security, water resources, weather and climate, land use, and natural disasters. A partnership of NASA, USAID, and leading technical organizations, SERVIR develops innovative solutions to improve livelihoods and foster self-reliance in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. SERVIR’s four thematic service areas are: agriculture and food security; land cover, land use change, and ecosystems; water and disasters, and; weather and climate. More information on SERVIR and its four hubs can be found at