16 September, 2020

GEO-GEE Project: Global water quality monitoring with AquaWatch

Good quality water is essential for human, ecosystem and economic health. However, around 80% of the world’s wastewater is currently released without adequate treatment back into the environment, leading to the pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans. 

This widespread problem of water pollution and unsafe drinking water is jeopardising the health of communities and is, on average, a bigger cause of human death annually than disasters and conflict combined. Many countries lack the required technical, institutional and financial capacity to develop and maintain water quality monitoring programs that are necessary to conduct proper water quality assessments on a long-term basis.

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) AquaWatch initiative is using remote sensing techniques to work towards improving the coordination, delivery and utilisation of water quality in regions where little is known about the quality of surface waters. This project is one of the 32 projects selected as part of the GEO - Google Earth Engine Program that provides funding to tackle environmental and social challenges using open Earth data. 

We spoke with Steven Greb, GEO AquaWatch Director and GEO-GEE Project Manager from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to learn more about the initiative and how the AquaWatch team will be using Google Earth Engine (GEE) to provide accessible and timely information about water quality conditions. 

Steven, can you tell us about the GEO AquaWatch project? 

The goal of this project is to provide global-scale, open access, freely available water quality information across inland and coastal waters for end users in the science community, water resource managers and the general public. They will be able to monitor and assess water quality conditions to anticipate, mitigate and even avoid future water quality challenges. Parameters will include chlorophyll-a, total suspended solids and coloured dissolved organic matter (CDOM).

What challenge will the project be tackling with open Earth data? 

Unfortunately, many places in the world have no sufficient water monitoring programs, which leads to water pollution and unsafe drinking water. Through AquaWatch, we want to bring timely information about local water quality conditions to regions of the world where there is little information about the water quality of surface waters. 

How will your team use Google Earth Engine to tackle this challenge?

GEE will supply the general framework and cloud computing platform for processing satellite imagery and other geospatial and observation data. GEE provides access to a large database of satellite imagery consisting of Landsat, Sentinel-2 and 3; and the computational power needed to analyse those images. 

GEE allows the Aquawatch team to run quick and vigorous testing of the proposed methodologies for both atmospheric correction and water quality validation in either different geographical regions or scales.

How has this challenge impacted your community?

The ability to measure water quality conditions from space is a quickly evolving field and for the first time, with improved satellite sensors, new algorithmic approaches and data processing capabilities, we have the ability to provide information about inland and coastal water quality conditions on a global scale, in near real time.

How will the GEO-GEE Program funding help your project?

Translating the satellite signal into a meaningful water quality concentration on a global scale requires large computational powers. Google Earth Engine has the imagery readily available and the framework in place to generate the proposed water quality products. This will be a first for our water quality  community of practice. 

What does success look like to you and your team? 

Our ultimate goal is to provide a sustainable water quality information service that will fulfill informational needs for a broad array of end users, from artisanal fishers to national water pollution control agencies (similar to the weather service). 

We still need to secure a patron(s) such as a national or international agency or foundation, who will commit funding and resources to support the long-term success of this effort, but this current project will help to demonstrate the efficacy of this approach. 

EO Data Science’s role in the GEO - GEE Program

EO Data Science partnered with Google Earth Engine and the Group on Earth Observations to launch the GEO-GEE Program, which supports GEO member countries to operationalise their science as they strive to tackle the world’s biggest sustainable development challenges. 

In July 2020, 32 projects across 22 countries were selected into the program which offers $3 million USD towards product licenses and $1 million USD in technical support from EO Data Science. This funding and support will help these projects tackle global challenges using open Earth data. Read the announcement and list of winners here

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