Be Boundless

Satellite-Based Text Message Irrigation Advisory System Helps Pakistani Farmers Stay Above Water


August 1, 2016

A picture of a Pakistan Farmer
A banana farmer in southern Pakistan, Javaid Khoro, checks his cellphone to view the irrigation advisory.

It’s kind of a cross between receiving a text message from Mother Nature and a business partner. More than 700 farmers in Pakistan who grow bananas, wheat and a variety of other crops have started receiving weekly text messages that advise them how much to water their crops. Developed by UW civil & environmental engineering researchers, the new Cellphone-based Irrigation Advisory System (CIAS) is helping farmers become more profitable and sustainable.

“The farmers were previously going on instinct and overwatering the crops,” Civil & Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Faisal Hossain said. “Now, it is scientifically driven and uses satellite data.”

Beginning in April 2016, weekly text messages customized by region and crop variety were sent to farmers via a SMS broadcast network. One of the first text messages sent to wheat farmers advised them to conserve water: “Dear farmer friend, we would like to inform you that your wheat crop does not need irrigation due to sufficient rainfall during the past week.” More than 50 farmers replied to the first text message, saying “shukria,” or thank you.

Agriculture is an important industry in Pakistan, accounting for roughly one fourth of the Gross Domestic Product and employing more than half of the labor force. But for the majority of farmers in Pakistan, farming knowledge is handed down from previous generations who also utilized the Indus Basin Irrigation System, which is the largest connected irrigation system in the world. Due to a lack of information about how much water crops require, it is not uncommon for crops to receive almost twice as much water as needed, said Hossain. Depending on the region, crop water requirements may range from 24 inches to 56 inches, with farmers applying as much as 88 inches of water. Overwatering not only reduces crop yield, but increases the cost of maintaining a water supply from drilling deeper for groundwater.

As the sixth most populous country in the world, sustainability is becoming increasingly important in Pakistan. With a climate that is characterized by little rainfall in some areas, farmers may spend months waiting for rain. To further complicate matters, the profitability of farming in Pakistan is also diminishing. Without government subsidies, farmers are increasingly looking for new occupations, rather than struggle to pay back loans.

“There is a greater need to grow more with the same amount of water,” Hossain said. “Our hope is that when farmers start using science-based information on when not to water or water less, there will be considerable savings in water, electric bills and crop yield.”

A Graphic Display Based on an NASA Satalite Display
Based on NASA satellite and model data, crop water requirements for various Pakistan regions are developed. Green and yellow regions indicate low to moderate crop water demand. Orange and red areas show very high crop water demand.

The CIAS program is overseen by the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), which is similar in nature to the United States Department of Agriculture or United States Geological Survey. Ahmed Zeeshan Bhatti, from the PCRWR research team, first approached Hossain, who directs the Sustainability, Satellites, Water and Environment research group, in July 2015. The project builds on Hossain’s current NASA-funded research, which has the goal of facilitating better water management in South Asia by utilizing a variety of satellite-based forecasting methods to monitor precipitation, snowpack and groundwater storage.

In just four months, three of Hossain’s graduate students developed open source software that gathers freely available NASA satellite data and other model data on precipitation, evaporation and weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Center for Atmospheric Research. The software calculates daily and weekly reference precipitation and the evaporation of water from soil and plants. The data and corresponding maps are then downloaded by PCRWR officials, who analyze them along with information about the season, climate and weather forecast. Watering recommendations are then developed for specific regions in Pakistan.

“This kind of system helps people in developing countries who have limited access to the Internet and updated technology,” said UW CEE master’s student Nishan Biswas, who developed the open-source software. “While designing the system, we considered one thing: that it should be as simple as possible for the users.”

In the coming year, PCRWR plans to expand the program to 14,000 farmers. The future goal is to reach more than a million farmers across Pakistan once cellphone coverage expands.

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