21 Mar 2019 Story Water

From eye in the sky to life on the ground

Photo by P Suchecki/ Kunene River

UN Environment, Google, the European Commission and partners aim to “leave no one behind” on World Water Day, launching a groundbreaking data platform to track the world’s water bodies—and countries’ progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

For the traditional Himba people in arid northern Namibia, life looks much as it did hundreds of years ago. Daily existence revolves around the water supplied by the Kunene River—for collecting drinking water, growing rainfed crops or caring for the livestock that sustain their livelihoods and diets.

Lately, however, traditions and water bodies in the Kunene region have been changing. Recurring droughts coupled with water over-abstraction have led to a loss of livestock, even cholera and famine. Adding to that, a proposal to bring hydropower to the region could involve damming the life-giving river. All of this means that countries like Namibia urgently need to be able to track and understand changes to their water bodies in order to make choices on the best use of their precious water resources and develop them sustainably.

Kunene River in northern Namibia, along the border with Angola Photo by A. Kerr

Namibia and its neighbors largely depend on rivers and other surface water bodies for water, food and energy. Windhoek, the capital, gets up to 30 per cent of its municipal water supply from surface waters or shallow wells. But like many countries in the world, Namibia has struggled with gathering and processing information about its water bodies: this is crucial for arid regions such as the Kunene basin, home to over one third of Namibia’s population and often struggling with water and food insecurity.

Because of their multiple uses, water-related ecosystems, including lakes and rivers, wetlands and aquifers, have been under pressure since widespread industrial development began in the 1970s. Some accounts suggest that we have lost more than half of our natural water bodies since that time. Measuring their changes is a prerequisite for their protection and restoration, which is why in 2015 the United Nations set a Sustainable Development Goal target, 6.6, to protect and restore water-related ecosystems.

Despite the essential role that water bodies play for sustainable development and daily life, however, measuring them has proven difficult for most countries in the world. In 2017, when the first data collection process for Sustainable Development Goal 6 was carried out, UN Environment found that only around 20 per cent of the nearly 200 United Nations Member States were able to provide basic information needed to measure progress.

Up until now, Namibia has mainly been using traditional monitoring methods to measure the state of its water bodies, occasionally using remote sensing in extreme circumstances such as in 2009, after the country experienced extensive flooding. Now, with the obligation to monitor water ecosystems within the scope of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Namibian Statistics Agency and development partners have been evaluating how a new satellite imagery platform for water can contribute to a comprehensive understanding of water trends and patterns in the country.

“With the help of tools such as the Water-Related Ecosystems platform, we are able to overcome computation and storage limitations, and extract the information directly to our needs in the country, to understand better what changes are happening to our water resources on the ground,” says Enrico Bezuidenhoudt, a geographic information system specialist at the Namibia Statistics Agency. “At a fraction of the cost, at scale, and at any time.”

The information and data provided to countries to track changes to their water bodies is part of a collaboration between a number of partners: UN Environment, Google, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), together with the European Space Agency (ESA), the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). The aim is to bring together and analyze decades of detailed and comprehensive data to help countries monitor progress on Sustainable Development Goal target 6.6.

“UN Environment is proud of this exciting partnership with Google and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre that brings the very best of technology to support countries in collecting data on development challenges. This will play a critical role in helping countries monitor progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and importantly, in taking informed decisions to improve the lives of people and protect the environment,” says Acting UN Environment Executive Director Joyce Msuya.

By providing countries with information that can track changes to water over the past 30 years, the new Sustainable Development Goal 6.6.1 platform, Water-Related Ecosystems, aims to create a global data set that is comparable between countries and over time.

Figure 1. The new water-related ecosystems platform offers downloadable information including data which can be used for Sustainable Development Goal indicator 6.6.1. At https://www.sdg661.app

The platform is proving useful even in countries with very complicated water systems. Measuring water in Canada, for example, which contains a complex and diversified array of ecosystem types, ranging from rainforests to dry grasslands and countless permanent and seasonal wetlands, is by no means an easy task. “The SDG 6.6.1 app and the underlying Global Surface Water Explorer are very useful tools, especially when powered by Google Earth Engine, and will be crucial to the measurement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Given the increasingly rapid changes to the Canadian hydrology caused by climate change and other factors, this platform will prove to be an invaluable asset to measure environmental change in Canada and report progress on the 2030 Agenda,” according to François Soulard from Statistics Canada.

Canada has a wide array of water-related ecosystemss ranging from permanent and seasonal wetlands, to rainforests. Photo by M. Grenier

The platform was launched at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly on 9 March 2019 and aims to provide free and open access to national, sub-national, basin and sub-basin aggregated data on water extent.

It also aims to help researchers, policymakers and practitioners understand changes occurring to the spatial extent of open water bodies, identify new or lost water, and identify where changes are happening to seasonal water bodies.

The UN Environment-Google-European Commission partnership on water is leading the way in finding innovative solutions that integrate the use of Earth observations into other Goals.

“It’s exciting to see the Sustainable Development Goals water-related ecosystems platform as an example of new global methodologies to catalyse progress and achievement across the rest of the sustainable development agenda. We’re proud of the role our platforms could play to help address data, knowledge, and access inequities as it relates to every country’s fundamental environmental understanding and resources,” says Google’s lead on the project, Brian Sullivan. 

For more information, please contact Stuart Crane or Lis Mullin Bernhardt in UN Environment’s Freshwater Ecosystems Unit.


“Leaving no one behind” is the topic of this year’s World Water Day, celebrated every year on 22 March to raise awareness on the world’s water challenges and importance of water.