Journalists Explore Central Asia’s Water System with Satellite and Sensor Data

“The irrigation network is the canvas on which life will embroider its stories; and in the process of creation, it is essential to see very clearly all aspects of future life.” This outlook informed its author, GK Rizenkamph, an Armenian engineer and scientist whose work in the first half of the 20th century laid the foundation for the large-scale water engineering projects that intertwine Central Asia’s ecologies and economies to this day.

Home to the receding Aral Sea, Central Asia has experienced massive ecological changes over the past 60 years in part a result of an irrigation system that is among the most complex in the world. As Rizenkamph and his Soviet-era colleagues believed their work foretold the future of life in the region, journalists can now use data collected by legions of satellites to look back in time and visualize the changes wrought by their historical interventions in the water cycle.

To help improve understanding of transboundary water issues and build practical skills to integrate data visualization into storytelling, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) staff joined ten journalists from four Central Asian countries to lead a two day workshop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The last decade and a half has produced rapid urban growth in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. via GIPHY

During the first day of the workshop, journalists were trained to use satellite data and analytical tools to provide a contemporary picture of the environment from space and reveal the past evidenced in billions of pixels. Participants used Google Earth Engine’s catalog of satellite imagery, as well as additional tools useful for detecting changes and mapping trends over time.

Explaining slow changes over time is challenging, Earth Engine can be used to create animated GIFs to visually speed up the pace for readers. However, hitting the fast-forward button can also obscure important details. For stories where the details are more important than the overall trend, participants built Juxtapose.js sliders to compare changes between two satellite images of the same place.

(The Nurek dam and reservoir in Tajikistan is the county’s largest. The uncoordinated use of reservoirs between upstream and downstream countries in the region can be a source of tension.)

One the second day of the training, participants were joined by Talaibek Makeev, the coordinator of the joint UNDP-GEF-UNECE Chu-Talas Project, to present on the activities of the transboundary water management commission and demonstrate available water quality monitoring data for the two rivers basins. This provided context for a field trip to the start of an irrigation canal channeling water from the Chu river. Here journalists witnessed the Soviet-era water project now being used to divide water between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, met with the operating engineers, and interviewed them.

Journalists stand on a dam overlooking the water

The workshop was organized by Internews’ Europe and Eurasia Program and entitled, “GeoJournalism in Central Asia: Data Reporting for Environmental Storytelling” as part of the Media for Improved Reporting on the Environment and Natural Resources in Central Asia project supported by the European Union.

(Banner image: Once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water, Central Asia’s Aral Sea lost approximately 60% of its area and 80% of its volume in the period from 1960-2000. To promote rapid growth in the cotton and food industries, the Soviet government opted to divert the two major rivers feeding the sea to irrigate the surrounding desert – from Global Surface Water Explore)