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DEVELOPMENT: Africa Still Hampered by Lack of Geographical Data

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Aug 27 2008 (IPS) - Geographic Information Systems (GIS) could play a vital role in improving agriculture and boosting food security in Africa. However, only a few African countries are capable of developing such systems, partly because of a lack of basic geographical data.

This arose during the third Map Africa conference, which took place in the South African city of Cape Town from August 25 to 26.

The conference revolved around geographical information technology systems, which are computer applications that capture, store, analyse, manage, present, monitor and visualise spatial information that is linked to a geographical location.

A GIS is therefore often associated with an interactive map, which combines tabular data, such as figures and statistics, with geographical or spatial information and computer technology.

GIS come in all shapes and sizes and are adapted to the situation that needs to be recorded, monitored or analysed. An example of GIS usage is Google Earth, an interactive 3D globe that shows users features such as land coverage, land usage, human settlements, infrastructure, water sources and other geographical aspects.

Anneliza Collett of the South African department of agriculture regards GIS as crucial in managing land: ‘‘We need to know about things such as erosion, about natural resources and which areas are suitable for agriculture. GIS enables us to do so, as it combines all relevant and necessary information in one visual system.’’

According to Derek Clarke, chief director of the surveying and mapping unit at South Africa’s ministry of land affairs, geographical information technology could play an important role in improving farming practices across Africa.

‘‘Geographic information technology systems, when incorporating features such as climatologic information, water sources, infrastructure and soil structure, could show us which regions in Africa as a whole or in individual African countries are suitable for what kind of agriculture,’’ explains Clarke.

Such systems could also be developed to monitor changes in climate, rainfall, erosion and soil structure. When made available to farmers, this could help them adapt their farming practices to environmental conditions.

"These systems are also capable of showing what natural resources exist in a specific region. Is there fresh water, for instance, and what is the land coverage and soil structure?

‘‘Also, are there markets where farmers can sell their produce and what is the infrastructure like? There may be markets, but if there are no roads that lead to them you will be unable to sell your products,’’ argues Clarke.

A GIS could also be used to avert certain problems.

Take Lake Victoria in Tanzania as an example: ‘‘The pesticides that are washing down the lake as a result of farming, combined with the wild growth of the alien invasive water hyacinth, are disastrous for the fish stocks and fisheries. This situation could be more efficiently monitored with a GIS,’’ according to Clarke.

In fact, the U.S. government used geographic information technology to avert an ecological problem in the Potomac River in the U.S. state of Virginia.

‘‘The river was severely affected by pesticides and farming,’’ elaborates Clarke. ‘‘It was green because of algae. Today, the Potomac is healthy and blue again. The GIS gave the authorities the tools to monitor the situation and to develop a strategy to deal with the problem.’’

According to Clarke the usage of GIS by governments could also improve overall service delivery: ‘‘If you know where people live, it is easier to decide where to build a school or a clinic.

‘‘A geographical information system may also assist authorities in mapping malaria hotspots in relation to where people live. This information is a key to developing anti-malaria drives,’’ Clarke concludes.

However, despite the importance and the advantages of GIS, only a handful of African countries are equipped with the means to develop such technology systems. The biggest problem is data collection.

Africa is poorly mapped, Clarke says: ‘‘Much of the information is incomplete or out of date. Only a small number of countries, like South Africa, have the means to collect data in an efficient manner.’’

The absence of quality and up-to-date data makes it impossible to build a GIS, Collett points out. ‘‘The data needs to be accurate, current and complete.’’

And that is a problem in Africa. ‘‘Some African states don’t even have their coastlines mapped,’’ Clarke reveals. ‘‘Others have no idea about the land tenure within their borders. Only 45 percent of street addresses and the continent’s populated areas are mapped. This presents a problem when it comes to developing GIS.’’

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