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A view from space helps Azerbaijan plan for the future

Landsat TM path 167 row 33 acquired 8 June 1998. False Colour Composite 453 (red, green, blue)

Click on map to see larger version

This satellite image shows an area just north of the district capital of Lenkoran, where the Vilascay River flows into the Caspian Sea at Gizilagac Bay. The Bay is home to a large nature reserve and is an important habitat for migratory birds.

The Vilascay is located in the southern part of the Kura Basin, Azerbaijan's most important agricultural region. Summers here are long, hot and dry, so irrigation is essential. Most of Azerbaijan's cultivated lands, which total over 1 million ha, are irrigated by more than 40 000 km of canals and pipelines.

The fields that can be seen were part of a large cotton plantation. The satellite image shows that now only a few fields are under cultivation. These are the bright red rectangular areas. The rest of the fields have been abandoned (pale green, bluish grey colour). Whitish patches in some of these fields indicate the presence of highly saline soils. The reddish orange lines dividing the fields are irrigation canals. They have not been maintained and are overgrown with aquatic vegetation. The dark and pale green areas to the east and north of the fields are grasslands..

The Caspian Sea is rising at a rate of 144 to 168 mm a year, or by 12 to 14 mm a month, and Azerbaijan's entire 830 km coastline has become flooded. The red patches in Gizilagac Bay are aquatic plants, such as reeds, that are growing in the shallow water.are growing in the shallow water.


FAO and the Azerbaijan Ministry of Agriculture and National Aerospace Agency have teamed up on a project that uses satellite remote sensing technology to produce land cover maps of Azerbaijan. Carlo Travaglia, Remote Sensing Officer in the Environmental and Natural Resources Service of FAO's Sustainable Development Department, is extremely happy with the images that have been selected and purchased from the satellite receiving station covering the region. "All the data are of perfect quality for the most relevant agricultural periods of 1998 and 1999," he said. "We have very accurate and up-to-date information about the situation on the ground in Azerbaijan."

The new land cover maps derived from this information will become an essential tool for agricultural policy-makers as they cope with the challenges and consequences of the country's transition to a free market economy. For Azerbaijan, like other countries that were once part of the Soviet system, economic reform has not been easy, especially for the agricultural sector. The Azerbaijani government is in the process of dismantling the large state-run farms and cooperatives that dominated the country's agricultural production during the Communist period. In the long run, privatizing the land and distributing it to individual farmers is expected to make the country's agricultural sector more competitive.

During the transition period, however, agricultural output has declined sharply. Farmers who are unsure about land ownership have had little incentive to work the land or maintain agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation canals. Furthermore, the financial crisis that has affected much of the former Soviet Union has led to drastically reduced markets for many of the Azerbaijan's major crops, especially cotton and grapes.

Satellite maps to aid resolution of land tenure problems

A quick resolution of the country's land tenure problems is essential to revitalize agricultural production. However, an equitable and productive distribution of farmland demands accurate information on land cover - information that is not readily available in Azerbaijan, as maps from the Soviet period have become obsolete. This is an area where satellite technologies can play an important role. The use of satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) has proved to be a fast and cost-effective way of generating detailed maps of land cover for use by decision-makers.

The Azerbaijan Ministry of Agriculture, recognizing FAO's extensive experience in this field, approached the Organization for assistance in creating maps derived from satellite information. The project uses the Land Cover Classification System developed by FAO, in the context of AFRICOVER, a project which aims to produce land cover maps from satellite data for the entire African continent. FAO's Land Cover Classification System is now routinely applied in all projects where land cover maps are produced.

Alexandru Badea, Director of the Romanian Centre for Remote Sensing Applications in Agriculture, has been hired as a consultant through FAO's programme for Technical Cooperation between Countries in Transition to work with the local team in Baku, Azerbaijan, in analysing the data. Over the course of the 18-month project, the team will produce maps of the entire country at a scale of 1:50 000. For areas of particular agricultural interest, the scale of the maps will be 1:25 000.

Project to set up national remote sensing centre

Another objective of the project is to assist the Government of Azerbaijan establish a permanent national remote sensing centre. Such a centre would guarantee that policy-makers working in a broad range of disciplines have continuous access to accurate and timely information on the country's renewable natural resources. Toward this end, FAO will provide basic equipment, satellite data and, most important, on-the-job staff training in remote sensing and GIS technologies.

Go to How does remote sensing work?

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8 December 1999

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