Water monitoring system aids Kenyan herders

Source: Alertnet // Geoffrey Kamadi
A Turkana woman carries water on her head in Lobei village of Turkana district in northwest Kenya on October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
By Geoffrey Kamadi
NAIROBI, Kenya (AlertNet) – Satellite technology is coming to the aid of pastoralists in drought-stricken Kenya, with the expansion of a water monitoring system that aims to reduce livestock loss.
The Livestock Early Warning System combines information uploaded by villagers with satellite data to create a virtually real-time map of forage and water conditions.
A successful pilot project in Turkana district in northwest Kenya is being considered for extension across the country.
“The whole idea is to automate the process of providing information on water conditions in the pastoral areas in a reliable, timely and consistent manner,” said Laban MacOpiyo, the scientist in charge of the project at the University of Nairobi.
The system uses technology developed by Texas A&M University in the United States and has been used in several states there, as well as in Mali and Mongolia, said MacOpiyo.
The current programme began in southern Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya. MacOpiyo said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provided $30,000 for its expansion in October 2011 into Turkana District, where an additional 12 monitoring sites were established by the University of Nairobi and Texas A&M.
The project uses Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping with open-source data. Villagers have been trained to use mobile phones to record information about water levels and the number of households and specific livestock – camels, donkeys, cattle, sheep or goats – using particular waterholes.
These data are combined with satellite images generated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to identify water sources, which are then visited by monitoring staff to ensure that water is present.
“We want to look at the conditions, the water quality, and distance trekked by livestock to a waterhole, as well as the forage conditions in the region,” said Joseph Matere, an FAO official in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
The data from locals on the ground and from NASA are fed into a computer that models the topography of the region along with hydrological characteristics such as infiltration, evapo-transpiration and surface run-off, explained MacOpyio.
The computer generates colour-coded images of the land. Green indicates normal vegetation cover, yellow suggests that the vegetation is getting poor, while brown means that it is scarce.
“Yellow areas … imply that long-term vegetation conditions are 20 to 40 percent below normal, which points toward drought conditions,” said Matere.
The aim is to come up with “a very reliable early warning system” and to give pastoralists faced with water shortages ideas on how to cope with drought conditions.
These might include de-silting and repairing strategic water sources, vaccinating and de-worming livestock to make them better able to stand adverse conditions, and establishing fodder production units. In more severe situations, experts might advise pastoral communities to use reserve grazing land if available or to sell their livestock well before the water situation becomes critical.
Matere said the FAO wants to encourage rehabilitation of degraded rangeland by fencing off areas in an effort to eventually improve grass availability.
In addition, it hopes to establish feed banks along migration routes so that livestock do not die enroute.
Computer models could also reproduce historical data, showing water conditions in years past. This could help scientists forecast conditions more accurately over periods ranging from three months to five years.
“This water monitoring system is very useful because it gives specific information on water and drought conditions of a specific area,” said Elizabeth Lokolio, a livestock officer with a Turkana pastoralist organization. She was trained as one of the project’s drought monitors.
Lokolio said that that the new method of communicating about water conditions is far superior to traditional practices, which relied on village elders to report information.
As part of the program, forecasts and advice are communicated to Turkana pastoralist communities via the Internet – accessed in part on mobile phones - but MacOpiyo said that scientists hope to work with the National Drought Monitoring Authority to disseminate their forecasts through community radio, text messaging and community meetings as well.
The pilot project in Turkana ended in February of this year, and MacOpiyo and his colleagues are now seeking FAO funding to support its continuation and expansion into other arid and semi-arid parts of the country.
Geoffrey Kamadi is a freelance Kenyan journalist based in Nairobi. He has written widely on science and health issues for local newspapers as well as online publications.

PESTMAN Pest tool aids in management decisions

By CLAY COPPEDGE, Country World staff writer

Anyone who has ever wondered how agriculture scientists and range management specialists come up with some of their facts, figures and recommendations for such matters as brush control can at least get a taste of the process with a program called Pestman, which sounds like it might be a superhero - or villain - but is actually a free decision support tool that helps landowners manage villainous species of weeds, plants and trees on their property.

Available only in Texas and New Mexico, Pestman allows the user to select the pest plant, state and plant density and then look up the recommendations for that plant. The recommendations include a list of management control options along with how much each of those options will cost. Treatment costs are upgrade annually, to reflect fluctuating costs.

Loren Naylor Using Pestman
Pestman team member Loren Naylor said the management tool program has logged about 3,500 visitors since December of 2009. --Staff photo by Coppedge

Wayne Hamilton, an AgriLife Research range scientist and one of the Pestman developers, said the program is designed to help landowners two ways - by listing the method of control and calculating the costs.  The user is first taken to a USDA website that identifies the weed and lists the various control options.

"It first allows the user to identify the appropriate technology, whether it's mechanical or chemical, of dealing with the problem," he said. "You can stop at that point or you can go to the next step, which is an economic analysis program. That will calculate the value of the treatment against the investment."

In a year like this one, when brush is about the only thing making a go of it in the state's pastures - and some of those are in hiding this year, too - brush control can also help rid the pasture of plants that are robbing the scant forage that is available of valuable moisture. Hamilton said that brush control is one of the most pervasive problems that landowners and operators face.

"We take a lot of surveys to find out what issues landowners are most concerned with, and brush control is identified as one of the top four or five issues in all cases," he said.

Pestman combines two existing programs, EXSEL and GAAT, to make its recommendations and access the costs. EXSEL (Expert System for Brush and Weed Control Technology Selection) was designed in the 1980s to help AgriLife Research and Extension personnel and land managers with brush and weed management decisions. GAAT (Grazingland Alternative Analysis Tool) is of about the same vintage and was designed to help producers predict the economic tradeoffs of various brush management grazing practices.

Richard Conner, with the Department of Agricultural Economics and another of the Pestman developers, said each of the old programs was effective in their time, but their time passed when new web-based technologies came along.

"Pestman is basically an update of the two earlier tools. EXSEL was a Doss program, before the Web. So was GAAT," he said. "With Pestman, we basically put the two programs together with updated technology."

The program was tested extensively before it was offered to the public. Texas A&M University and New Mexico State University were the primary academic researchers, collaborating with the USDA Risk Management Agency (which provided funding for research and development), Texas AgriLife Research and private industry, including Grazingland Management Systems, Inc. and AgForce consulting companies. 

Loren Naylor, also a member of the Pestman team, said the program has logged about 3,500 visitors and 1,500 repeat customers since December of 2009. "That tells us that a lot of them are coming back to use the site again, which is a good sign," he said. "A lot of NRCS field agents and extension agents use it, and now we're seeing more private landowners use it."

Naylor added that the chemical costs associated with treatment options are updated regularly. Mechanical costs are due to be updated, and he hopes to add an enhancement to the tool that more specifically targets cost to that individual producer.

"The costs are measured now as general regional costs," he said. "If we can get the funding, we'd like to add an enhancement that breaks it down to your own individual cost, what you would pay for it from a local supplier. This would help get it as accurate as possible."

Pestman also includes "forage response curves" which predicts how long it will take the treatments to work and how much forage will be saved as a result of the practices. The program analyzes profit from increased forages following treatment compared to the amount of forage that would be produced without the treatment. Hamilton recommends that producers use extra care when calculating the response curve.

"The treatments and the price of treatments - those really have to be weighed heavily by the user," he said. "Or, if they don't have enough knowledge to be comfortable with that part of the program, they might want to contact an expert for help from their extension agent, a range management specialist or an NRCS field agent."

To for more information and to access the tool, go to pestman.tamu.edu.

--Reprinted with permission of Country World Central Texas