Two twin satellites are currently involved in a groundbreaking mission to collect vital information on groundwater levels around the world. The aim of the program, called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), is to help governments and water users manage this essential resource more sustainably. The program is a collaboration between NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Since its launch in 2002, it has successfully painted a unique and detailed picture of groundwater use and change. GRACE is landmark program because it is trailblazing an approach to dealing with resource scarcity that is characterized by the use of satellites and remote sensing. The program is also showing how better information and increased transparency can hold the key to improved resource management.
Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues of the present day. Groundwater often represents a crucial safeguard against droughts and general water shortages, particularly in dryer regions with relatively large populations. In many of these areas, such as the Middle East’s Tigris-Euphrates basin, the danger of underground aquifer depletion is increasing to a dangerous level. Groundwater depletion in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world, would almost inevitably result in an economic and humanitarian crisis. Governments and other water users are eager to prevent this catastrophe from happening. However, in the past, information on groundwater levels was scarce, making effective decision-making problematic.
The GRACE satellites are able to track even minimal changes in groundwater levels by determining the mass of the land below them. The data they collect is providing policy makers with the information that they previously lacked, making long-term planning for water security possible to an unprecedented extent. The program is gaining increasing recognition now because of the trends in groundwater levels that it is identifying. Every year’s worth of data collected adds to our understanding of unfolding patterns, which helps inform debates. Decision makers are now able to determine where water should be drawn from during droughts, better frame debates on cross border water usage, and ratify more equitable treaties. Furthermore, it is not only governments that can benefit from this data. There are growing calls for the information to be made publicly available online in a user-friendly format. This would signal a massive step towards greater transparency on the use and availability of water.
The GRACE program is at the forefront of a movement to use advanced technology as a tool to help deal with resource scarcity. The use of satellites and remote sensing, in particular, is becoming a major part of the drive for improved natural capital management. With these enhanced tools also comes the potential for increased transparency. If the data collected by the GRACE program becomes available in a user friendly format, it will allow the public to hold their leaders accountable for how they manage water resources. This approach could eventually be replicated for other resources.