Avert Bangladesh’s looming water crisis through open science and better data

Article by Augusto Getirana et al: “Access to data is a huge problem. Bangladesh collects a large amount of hydrological data, such as for stream flow, surface and groundwater levels, precipitation, water quality and water consumption. But these data are not readily available: researchers must seek out officials individually to gain access. India’s hydrological data can be similarly hard to obtain, preventing downstream Bangladesh from accurately predicting flows into its rivers.

Bilateral scientific collaboration between Bangladesh and water-sharing nations, including India, Nepal, Bhutan and China, would be mutually beneficial. The decades-long Mekong River Commission between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam is one successful transboundary agreement that could serve as a model.

Publishing hydrological data in an open-access database would be an exciting step. For now, however, the logistics, funding and politics to make on-the-ground data publicly available are likely to remain out of reach.

Fortunately, satellite data can help to fill the gaps. Current Earth-observing satellite missions, such as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) Follow-On, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) network, multiple radar altimeters and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors make data freely available and can provide an overall picture of water availability across the country (this is what we used in many of our analyses). The picture is soon to improve. In December, NASA and CNES, France’s space agency, plan to launch the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission. SWOT will provide unprecedented information on global ocean and inland surface waters at fine spatial resolution, allowing for much more detailed monitoring of water levels than is possible today. The international scientific community has been working hard over the past 15 years to get ready to store, process and use SWOT data.

New open-science initiatives, particularly NASA’s Earth Information System, launched in 2021, can help by supporting the development of customized data-analysis and modelling tools (see go.nature.com/3cffbh9). The data we present here were acquired in this framework. We are currently working on an advanced hydrological model that will be capable of representing climate-change effects and human impacts on Bangladesh’s water availability. We expect that the co-development of such a modelling system with local partners will support decision-making.

SERVIR, a joint programme of NASA and the US Agency for International Development that focuses on capacity-building, could also help improve forecasting of severe weather for Bangladesh, for example. This could improve the flood monitoring and forecast system operated by the Bangladesh Water Development Board, which is limited in geographical scope — flooding is monitored only at specific locations, not across the country. Such efforts will help with short-term adaptation and emergency responses to flood conditions, and with long-term planning for infrastructure…(More)”.