Eyes in the Sky for Peace: Geospatial Data in Conflict Prevention

A graphic image geospatial data. Credit: iStock / metamorworks

Most of us feel the effects of climate change most directly through water: when there’s not enough of it or too much, or when it is unsafe to use. Competition over access to water, and the politics surrounding it, can compound the risk of conflict. The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) has helped develop a tool to study the links between instability in access to water and unrest, with a view to improving the way we prevent the latter.

The salinization of water and soils, desertification and the disappearance of arable land have become existential concerns. Around the world, communities are increasingly facing off over access to water and other life-sustaining resources. One country that has often felt such tensions is Iraq.

With a combination of a lack of rainfall and poor water management, Iraq is acutely vulnerable, as its main source of water, the Tigris and the Eupharates are transboundary rivers.

“It is important for our conflict prevention work in the region to utilize modern, data-informed approaches to better address climate security related circumstances and factors,” said Darko Mocibob, the Director of DPPA’s Middle East Division (MED). “Iraq is no stranger to climate security risks and water-related instability, but quantitatively validating this relationship has been a challenge.”

Drawing on the expertise and support of the MED, DPPA’s Innovation Cell, together with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) over the course of three years, developed a tool that enables UN Missions and government counterparts to study the relationship between water diminishment and social unrest using geo-temporal data. The collaboration with geospatial partners in the UN family, academia and the private sector has been crucial in this endeavor, which was globally recognized at the 2022 Geospatial World Forum in May, the main gathering of the earth observation industry, receiving the Geospatial World Excellence Award.

“All this was made possible by working together with our private sector partner — Element 84,” Daanish Masood Alavi, from DPPA’s Innovation Cell, said. “We turned to earth observation satellites and clever mapping techniques to make this geospatial data talk. The end result is an interactive data dashboard, displaying historical water availability across every district and governorate of Iraq.”

“Indicators of water supply, such as precipitation, soil moisture, vegetation, and groundwater, are visualized and overlaid with conflict data so trends between the two can be analyzed over time,” he added,

The 2022 Geospatial World Forum took place in Zaandam, Netherlands from 9–12 May.

“When it comes to climate security and conflict prevention, the only way to anticipate the future is to first examine the past,” says Trevor Skaggs, a Lead Engineer of Element 84. “Already, clear relationships between water diminishment — particularly of groundwater — and conflict surges can be observed. As we apply automation to our project, which would allow for near-real time data analysis, we will inch even closer to the predictive space. By understanding how the environment and human behavior intersect, we can keep a pulse on potential instability,” Skaggs notes.

The tool leverages data sources in innovative and cost-effective ways to provide a competitive information-edge for conflict prevention. Users can extract spatiotemporal trends on water insecurity with ease. This gives analysts an advantage when it comes to informing decisions that have the potential to affect millions of people.

“The innovative part of the project is that we are using uncharted geospatial methods for the good of peace,” highlighted Allison Puccioni, a senior geospatial consultant to the DPPA’s Innovation Cell and an affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

The Water Security in Iraq data dashboard ingests thousands of open-source earth observation data points from satellites that have been in orbit for decades and visualizes it against conflict and other indicators of water supply and demand. Map and graph components display historical trends in a high-impact, scalable, and low-cost method.

“There have been satellites collecting datasets such as rainfall and land temperature for decades. Both excess and scarcity of water as well as vegetation water have preceded localized conflict. If we collect all that data in one place and interpolate it to factor many different indicators together, we can calculate “water security” on a month-over-month, district-over-district basis,” said Puccioni. “This allows us to monitor and find correlations between environmental severity and conflict. Now we have a map of how and when that happened.”

Built after a series of interviews with on-the-ground teams in Iraq, the dashboard, currently available for the UN and the Government of Iraq, is designed to be accessible to scientists and policy analysts alike. This pilot project has inspired other geospatial DPPA projects in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The expansion of the tool underscores the need for more thorough geospatial analysis across an increasingly resource-scarce world.

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