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Can We Achieve Water Justice in the Age of Artificial Intelligence and Satellite Observations?

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

water justice

How can we talk about water justice without first securing the human right to water and sanitation? This provocative question is at the forefront of my work as a young professional passionate about social justice, climate change, and water rights. In today's world, technology is reshaping our understanding of the planet and our relationship with it. Satellite data, Earth observations, and artificial intelligence (AI) are not just buzzwords - they are powerful tools that can help us move towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) - clean water and sanitation for all.

Satellite-based Earth observations keep enriching our understanding of atmospheric and environmental science, as well as hydrological modelling through the increasingly accurate and reliable data we derive from them. Furthermore, advances in technology have made operating and maintaining satellites more affordable, while open data policy has democratised access to a wealth of geospatial data. For instance, satellite data from programs, such as Landsat and Copernicus (Sentinels), as well as from instruments like MODIS, are now freely available to a wide range of users - from researchers and small businesses to non-governmental organisations and the public.

earth observations and Artificial Intelligence

Satellite Image by Iban Ameztoy

The resulting triad of AI, satellite data, and in situ data, is playing a pivotal role offering innovative, data-driven solutions. However, to unleash the full potential of these technological levers, we must address a prevalent concern: the capability gap that exists across various nations and communities that lack of relevant data infrastructure, e.g., numerous organisations still store all data on paper or in spreadsheets, and they are also missing necessary expertise in emerging or new technologies.

Navigating the Gap: Data and its Power

The transformative potential of AI and satellite data in achieving SDG 6 is undeniable, but it risks being lost to those nations and communities lacking the necessary data infrastructure and expertise. Beyond water and sanitation, these advanced tools carry broader implications.

AI and data technologies can provide insights into various human rights issues. In my work, through pattern recognition in satellite imagery, we have identified areas at risk of experiencing food scarcity, inadequate water provision and vulnerable populations exposed to urban heat island effects in different countries from Latin America. While my focus was on water, I could see how these technologies can help pinpoint areas where other human rights are at risk, empowering targeted interventions and working more collaboratively or in an interdisciplinary manner.

While we harness satellite data that offers an invaluable bird's-eye view to provide evidence of a wide range of human rights abuses, we must not forget that countries with limited digitised data and a lack of trained experts often face challenges in leveraging these advanced technologies.

Bridging the Capability Gap: The crucial role of partnerships and education

How can we bridge this capability gap and ensure every nation can leverage these promising technologies? The solution lies in forging strategic partnerships, investing in capacity building, and advocating for open access to technology and data.

1. Strategic Partnerships: Collaboration between technologically advanced countries and those with limited resources can fast-track technology and knowledge transfer. Initiatives such as SERVIR, a joint venture by NASA and USAID, provide a strong model. The program assists developing countries in using satellite information to manage environmental challenges.

2. Capacity Building: The dividends of investing in education and training cannot be overstated. By creating opportunities for students from developing countries to study in these fields and training the existing workforce in new technologies, we can effectively enhance local capacities. We need an interdisciplinary approach to education that marries Earth sciences, data analysis, AI technologies, and social sciences, fostering a generation of change makers ready to serve their municipalities, regions, and countries.

NASA satellite images

In conclusion, the path to achieving SDG 6 is not just about employing sophisticated technology like AI and satellite data. It also involves ensuring these technologies are accessible to all. Through partnerships, education, and open source solutions, we can bridge the digital divide, enabling every country, regardless of its resources, to effectively manage water and sanitation for its people. The power of data extends beyond water and sanitation; satellite data can be used to provide evidence of a wide range of other human rights abuses.

Why not harness these advancements now to develop a global, open source platform for human rights data? Such a platform could democratise access to this data, catalysing local solutions. We could also explore partnerships between technology companies and governments or NGOs to ensure this data is available in formats and topics that align to different technological and professional capacities, so we guarantee it is utilised to its maximum potential.

As we stand at the threshold of this exciting era, we are only just beginning to explore the potential of combining satellite data, AI, and a commitment to social justice. The challenge before us isn't whether we can achieve water justice - it's how we will use these powerful tools to narrow the inequality gap for the human right to water and sanitation and make strides towards a more equitable and sustainable world.

About the Author

Nhilce Esquivel (MSc) is a specialist in disaster risk reduction, sustainability, and innovation working as a researcher at Stockholm Environment Institute. Her current work focuses on developing tools and applying human centre design approach into projects aiming to improve decision making in the water, WASH, and climate adaptation sectors.


Réseau's goal is to connect people with purpose and foster a more inclusive global dialogue.


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