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Robert-Jans Sips and colleague, Gert Jan Keizer, head into the Gobi desert on their Russia-Central Asia trek to combat water problems.

Robert-Jans Sips and colleague, Gert Jan Keizer, head into the Gobi desert on their Russia-Central Asia trek to combat water problems.

By Robert-Jan Sips

Last September, I left Amsterdam by car with friend and colleague, Gert Jan Keizer, to embark on the Poseidon Project – a community effort to fight the root causes of regional water problems with Internet of Things, cloud and analytics technology.

The epic journey took us across Russia and Central Asia to some of the most climate-challenged regions in the world. By the end, we had clocked a grand total of 34,000 kilometers.

Of all the Central-Asian water concerns, one of the most visible is the decline of the Aral Sea, lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As recently as 1960, this inland sea occupied the same amount of area as Ireland. But since that time, is has gradually dried out and in 2014, it almost disappeared completely.

Aral Sea in 1989 (left), and 2014 (right).

Aral Sea in 1989 (left), and 2014 (right).

A century ago, the lake contained a wealth of fish and its shores were inhabited by people living off that industry. In 1989, the fish in the lake all but disappeared, owing to the increased saliency of the drying lake.

A silent witness of the Aral Sea disaster is the nearly deserted town of Moynaq. Keizer and I visited this town in November 2014. A decaying city in the midst of a polluted salt desert, the once prosperous harbor is now home to the rusting remains of a proud fishing fleet.

During our visit, we were invited to stay with a local family. Unable to leave the town, these people were stuck in a routine of driving 200km each day towards the nearest water to catch the remaining fish for survival.

Rusted ship in the Aral Sea.

Rusted ship in the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea disaster is not alone. Due to the ever increasing water demand for agricultural products, a daunting 200 of the world’s 268 river basins face a similar fate. Probably the most well-known are Africa’s Lake Chad and Kazakhstan’s Lake Bakhash.

These numbers are even sadder when you realize that relatively simple technology could help reduce things like crop-agricultural water usage – which accounts for 96 percent of the global water footprint.

Gert Keizer with farming family in the Altai Mountains.

Gert Jan Keizer, Dutch Courage Foundation, with farming family in the Altai Mountains.

By measuring soil moisture at various points of a field and combining these measurements with data analytics and weather prediction, farmers can get a real-time advice on when and where to water their crops. Scientific research suggests that this could yield water saving of some 30 percent.

Currently, however, uptake of these technologies in the regions where they are most needed is low, because systems are either too unreliable, expensive or too complex for the often uneducated farmer.

The Poseidon Project aims to change these perceptions by creating open and accessible technology and (primary) school education to explain the concepts of water footprint to future generations.

Robert-Jan Sips, Center for Advanced Studies, IBM Global Business Services

Robert-Jan Sips, Center for Advanced Studies, IBM Global Business Services

Supported by volunteers at IBM and Delft University of Technology, Keizer and I set forth to Russia and Central-Asia to build a community of students and researchers and lay the ground work for the Poseidon Platform for Precision Agriculture.

The first set of education materials allows people to measure the usage of home plants with a $100 device and IBM Bluemix. This year, we will proceed to start pilots with farmers in the Netherlands and Russia.
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To learn more about the project, please visit: Tutorials at IBM DeveloperWorks and join us at www.poseidonproject.org
Related Coverage: Cloud and Rain Clouds, a Good Combination for Dry Feet

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