Big data and multiple methods for mapping small reservoirs: comparing accuracies for applications in agricultural landscapes

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Whether or not reservoirs contain water throughout the dry season is critical to avoiding late season crop failure in seasonally-arid agricultural landscapes. Locations, volumes, and temporal dynamics, particularly of small (<1 Mm3) reservoirs are poorly documented globally, thus making it difficult to identify geographic and intra-annual gaps in reservoir water availability. Yet, small reservoirs are the most vulnerable to drying out and often service the poorest of farmers. Using the transboundary Volta River Basin (~413,000 sq km) in West Africa as a case study, we present a novel method to map reservoirs and quantify the uncertainty of Landsat derived reservoir area estimates, which can be readily applied anywhere in the globe. We applied our method to compare the accuracy of reservoir areas that are derived from the Global Surface Water Monthly Water History (GSW) dataset to those that are derived when surface water is classified on Landsat 8 OLI imagery using the Normalised Difference Water Index (NDWI), Modified NDWI with band 6 (MNDWI1), and Modified NDWI with band 7 (MNDWI2). We quantified how the areal accuracies of reservoir size estimates vary with the water classification method, reservoir properties, and environmental context, and assessed the options and limitations of using uncertain reservoir area estimates to monitor reservoir dynamics in an agricultural context. Results show that reservoir area estimates that are derived from the GSW data are 19% less accurate for our study site than MNDWI1 derived estimates, for a sample of 272 reservoir extents of 0.09 to 72 ha. The accuracy of Landsat-derived estimates improves with reservoir size and perimeter-area ratio, while accuracy may decline as surface vegetation increases. We show that GSW derived reservoir area estimates can provide an upper limit for current reservoir capacity and seasonal dynamics of larger reservoirs. Data gaps and uncertainties make GSW derived reservoir extents unsuitable for monitoring reservoirs that are smaller than 5.1 ha (holding ~49,759 m3), which constitute 674 (56%) reservoirs in the Volta basin, or monitoring seasonal fluctuations of most small reservoirs, limiting its utility for agricultural planning. This study is one of the first to test the utility and limitations of the newly available GSW dataset and provides guidance on the conditions under which this, and other Landsat-based surface water maps, can be reliably used to monitor reservoir resources
Original languageEnglish
Article number1307
Issue number12
Early online date13 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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