Geoinformation, monitoring and assessment Environment

Updated November 1997

Overview of FAO Remote Sensing, Geographic Information System and Agrometeorological Activities

Overview | Environmental monitoring | Agriculture | Forestry and fisheries | Projects, training, publications | Cooperation


During 1996, the FAO Sustainable Development Department was reorganized, resulting in the merger of two key environmentally oriented units, i.e the Environmental Information Management Service and the Environment and Sustainable Development Coordinating Centre, into the Environment and Natural Resources Service. This Service was placed in the Research, Extension and Training Division of the Department and the reorganization has significantly improved in-house as well as external coordination between various activities in FAO's mandate.

The overall mission of the Environment and Natural Resources Service of FAO, comprising Remote Sensing, Agrometeorology, GIS, Energy and the follow-up to UNCED, is to contribute to and promote environmental and natural resources management and conservation in the context of sustainable agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, rural development and food security.

The Service provides technical support, including advisory services, formulation, backstopping and evaluation, to field projects and Headquarters programmes, including some 5O countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean and Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, FAO provides support to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) for their field project activities as well as to the World Bank concerning guidelines on harmonization and standardization.

The main orientation of the Service, concerning activities in Remote Sensing, GIS and Agrometeorology is:

Special emphasis is on services to developing countries, with activities in capacity building and decision-makers awareness. Current activities are, broadly, the following:

Activities are undertaken at all levels: global, regional, national and local and include both normative and operational aspects. Examples follow.

At global level

Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS)

During 1996, following completion of the work of the Scientific and Technical Planning Group for the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), which was instituted by ICSU, UNESCO, UNEP, WMO and FAO in late 1993, FAO established a Secretariat at its Headquarters to support the development and implementation of GTOS.

GTOS is designed to overcome current weaknesses in terrestrial ecosystem data and information at global scale and its primary objective is to provide policy makers, resource managers and the research community with the data needed to detect, quantify, locate and give early warning of changes in the global capacity of terrestrial ecosystems to support sustainable development and improvements in human welfare.

The establishment of GTOS will be undertaken in close cooperation with the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), coordinated by WMO and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), coordinated by UNESCO/IOC. Various coordination mechanisms, including joint expert panels such as the Global Observing Systems Space Panel (GOSSP), and a high-level Coordination Committee are currently in place.

The GTOS Steering Committee met for the first time at FAO Headquarters in December 1996 to review the outcome of the Planning Phase and to map out the elements of the GTOS Implementation Plan. Subsequently, a meeting was convened in Rome during May 1997 at which the FAO Secretariat and key members of the Steering Committee developed concrete plans for action which emphasize establishment of appropriate networks and harmonization of environmental observation parameters and data collection methods.

Forest Resources Assessment (FRA)

A large number of Landsat scenes (120) have been used in a multitemporal analysis for the global tropical forest resources inventory, since 1990, as part of the FAO forest resources assessment (FRA 1990 project, conducted by the Forestry Department, FRA 2000 presently in preparation).

Agroclimatic databases

This work includes:

(i) management of a sizeable collection of climatic data (about 22,000 stations worldwide), mainly long-term averages for a number of parameters, and long-term series for monthly rainfall and temperatures. The database serves the whole Organization. It has been published on a CD-ROM for wider distribution;

(ii) dissemination of a database of African sub-national crop statistics and a reference unit on climate, and climate change and agriculture (AGDAT).

Development and standardization methods of agroclimatic databases and application software

Several software tools for impact assessments were developed and have been distributed.

Coordination in the field of agrometeorology and agroclimatology

The Agrometeorology Group is the focal point in FAO for relations with WMO, the WMO Commission for Agricultural Meteorology (Cagm), the EU Support Group on Agrometeorology. A seminar on yield forecasting was organized in October 1994 at Villefranche sur Mer (France) together with the European Union/DGVI, Eurostat and JRC).

Climate change

The Agrometeorology Group provides the Secretariat for Inter-departmental Working Group on Sustainable Development, sub-group on Climate Change.

Other global-level activities include:

At regional level

Agrometeorological crop monitoring

Rainfall measurements and crop phenology data are regularly collected and processed for about 35 African countries to assess the impact of weather on crop condition. The processed data are provided to GIEWS for inclusion in their regular analyses on the food production outlook.

Monitoring environmental conditions in Africa for food security

Since 1988, the Service has been operating the Africa Real Time Environmental Monitoring Information System (ARTEMIS). The system acquires and processes routinely in realtime hourly estimates of rainfall and in near-realtime vegetation index (NDVI) images, using Meteosat and NOAA data. The system covers the whole of Africa and the products are produced on a ten-day and monthly basis for use in the field of "early warning for food security" and "desert locust control".

Related technology transfer is being implemented through regional remote sensing projects in the SADC and IGAD regions with financial assistance from the Governments of The Netherlands and France and in West Africa through the FAO Regional Office for Africa in Accra, Ghana. The ARTEMIS related Regional Remote Sensing Project of FAO, which assists SADC in establishing a remote sensing and GIS capacity for its regional food security early warning system, has made significant progress in developing suitable information products, which are now available to various types of users in a timely fashion, using data transmissions through e-mail.

The ARTEMIS databases, which have recently been expanded with a rainfall assessment capability for Asia, using GMS data, constitute a significant source of information for a wide variety of programmes in the field of food security, insect pest control and animal health as well as the basic data for a variety of research programmes.


After a preparatory period, the East African component is now fully operational at the RCSSMRS in Nairobi with trustfund support from the Government of Italy (US$5.5M). There is an urgent need in Africa for an up-to-date inventory and mapping of actual land cover at 1:250,000 and 1:1,000,000 (and 1:100,000 for small countries). Currently, no such maps exist, unless compiled from a wide variety of sources, scales, legends and accuracies, with many incompatibilities and completely outdated old maps and gaps. Common and homogeneous baseline information is a necessity. A further objective of AFRICOVER is to reinforce and to build up the national and sub-regional capacities for the establishment, update and operational use of the geographic and referential and landcover maps and geodatabases.

The AFRICOVER project will be executed at regional and national levels. The World Bank, France and the European Union have shown a broad interest. Two workshops in 1996, held in Dakar and Addis Ababa, in cooperation with ECA, defined a harmonized landcover classification and relevant geometrical parameters.

Regional Environmental Information Management Project for Central Africa (REIMP)

In close cooperation with the World Bank and GEF, another regional AFRICOVER project for Central Africa is in preparation. A joint project formulation mission has been undertaken in Yaoundé, Cameroun in February 1996: Regional Environment Information Management Project (REIMP). The main goal of this project is to improve and strengthen planning and management of natural resources in the Congo basin by providing the various stakeholders with appropriate environmental information. The four specific objectives of the project are:

AFRICOVER should contribute to this project by providing the first information layer, i.e. land cover, of such a regional information system.

Integrated Coastal Analysis and Monitoring System for Operational Application in Coastal Regions (ICAMS)

ICAMS is a project proposal having the objective of demonstrating how an integrated data management and analysis system can greatly increase the potential of ocean colour and temperature imagery from earth observation satellites for operational use in monitoring water quality in relation to utilisation requirements along the european coasts. The proposal has been developed jointly between FAO and european private industry and has been submitted for funding to the European Union CEO Programme.

Remote Sensing Processing and Archiving System (RESPAS)

In preparation with Forest Department for three pilot projects in Latin America, South-east Asia and Africa. A RESPAS project in Ecuador is scheduled for implementation during 1997.

Other regiobal activities include:

At national level - field projects

The Agrometeorology Group is technically responsible for the agrometeorology/ crop forecasting component of national and regional food security projects, mainly in Africa.

Inventory and monitoring of natural resources

At local level

Land Information Systems, cadastre activities, rapid assessment at the village level. Through a two year cooperation with other FAO Divisions, the Service has developed a new activity within the "land registration/land distribution" task force. Cooperative efforts in Land Information Systems are required in development projects to link physical parameters with socio-economic ones and to avoid a lack of knowledge in land tenure. The task force objective is to include this crucial aspect as a component of each project which should be financed as well as other ones, so giving due consideration to land users and obtaining their participation. Technical inputs should be made for a better use of GIS, LIS, including important geometrical aspects. At the same time, new technical efforts are being made, for rapid estimation, at the village level, of land tenure using small GIS and GPS based control points. A prototype has been made in Niger and was tested in Guinea and Tunisia,including the preparation of a user manual. Cadastral problems are being analyzed in Haiti and in some former socialist republics in eastern Europe.

Training, Publications, Expert consultations, Missions, Advice

A large number of training activities, missions, expert consultations, participation to internal symposiums or working groups are undertaken. Among them, in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997/98:


Remote sensing has become an important and major source of geographic information on current land cover and land use needed for rational development and sustainable management of agricultural and forestry resources and for environmental protection. It is therefore increasingly used by FAO in its programmes and field projects in the spirit of Agenda 21. However, until now remote sensing has been largely technology-driven. Users have to compromise to fit their information requirements to the parameters of available remote sensing data. Furthermore, countries that need remote sensing most do not have resources to build the necessary capacities for its efficient use.

Growing volumes of image data generated or image products sold should not be used as a measure of success of satellite remote sensing. The ultimate criterion of its success will be the extent to which remote sensing will have contributed to the quality of life on our planet. Greater international effort should be made to apply the new remote sensing and GIS capacities where they are needed most: to monitor environmental degradation and to implement sustainable management of natural resources in order to safeguard them for future generations. Particular attention should be given to the needs of developing countries and to strengthening their national remote sensing and GIS capacities and their ability to develop and maintain integrated information systems, aiming to provide useful and available information for decision-makers at all levels, from the farmer to the governmental level.

Remote sensing, as part of the information technology, has an important role to play in assisting to maintain the equilibrium between the sustainable management of natural resources, environmental protection and rapidly increasing population. Establishment and maintenance of reliable and easily accessible geographic databases, combined with the establishment of efficient environmental monitoring systems, are essential requirements to cope with the immense challenge to secure sustainable food production and to prevent environmental degradation.

Solving these tasks requires intensive cooperation between countries and their assistance by bilateral programmes, UN agencies and other international organizations as well as the private sector.

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