Satellites, partnerships, and dzud: How WFP brought PRISM to Mongolia

WFP Innovation Accelerator
6 min readNov 3, 2020


By Amit Wadhwa, Global Programme Manager for PRISM

Back in September 2017, the World Food Programme (WFP)’s Regional Bureau in Bangkok began to hear from our colleagues in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Early Warning team that a significant drought over the summer was likely to have a big impact on crops. This alert — captured through satellite data — kicked off WFP’s engagement into a new country and a new context. Shortly after, I traveled to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar to join a team from FAO to investigate the potential impact of the drought on farmers, herders, and vulnerable communities in Mongolia.

Through meetings with government officials and partners in Ulaanbaatar, my team and I started to learn more about a local phenomenon called “dzud.” Dzud refers to the death of livestock caused by harsh winter conditions, which often follows a drought in the summer. With nearly one third of Mongolians dependent on livestock for their income, this is a major issue that has had devastating effects historically. In the winter of 2009–2010 for example, 8.5 million livestock died from starvation and exposure to extremely cold temperatures. Many herders lost all their animals and were forced to migrate to Ulaanbaatar where jobs are limited, and the city was unprepared for a large influx of people from the countryside.

You quickly begin to see how grave the consequences can be, once you hear and read about dzud, and understand the connection between herders, their animals and the land. Besides losing their income and assets, there is a spiritual loss; an erosion of well-being that permeates into every aspect of their daily lives. For families that have been nomadic herders for generations, this is not just a loss of livelihood, this is a loss of identity.

Herder looking over his sheep and goats.
Herder looking over sheep and goats, Baruunburen (Selenge province). Photo: WFP/Amit Wadhwa

Building from the first alert triggered by satellite data, my team, which consisted of Nicolas Bidault (Senior Regional Advisor, WFP Asia and the Pacific) and Darko Petrovic (Food Security Monitoring Specialist) and myself, began to strategize how WFP could empower government partners in Mongolia with tools to monitor dzud risks and prevent these livelihood losses. Over the next year, WFP continued to develop relationships in Mongolia with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and a network of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the objective of providing technical support on dzud risk monitoring. In 2019, we successfully proposed a project to USAID’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (now known as USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)) to establish remote-sensing and SMS-based systems for government and partners to monitor dzud risk across the country using satellite data. With support from USAID, WFP expanded on a mobile phone-based monitoring system in close partnership with Mercy Corps, and we configured and deployed PRISM (the Platform for Real-time Impact and Situation Monitoring).

Implementing PRISM in Mongolia

Fast forward to today and we’re ready to launch PRISM in Mongolia. Measuring droughts in Indonesia and the risk of dzud in Mongolia may seem worlds apart, but through a series of discussions, prototyping and collaboration with our colleagues in government and NGOs, we were able to build partnerships to adapt PRISM for the context of Mongolia to monitor the risk of dzud. With support from the WFP Innovation Accelerator and technical cooperation with Ovio, we recently revamped PRISM to make the system more flexible and easier to configure for new contexts quickly, including for Mongolia.

We were fortunate to have made a connection with the SIBELIUs project; a UK Space funded program implemented by eOsphere, which is deploying the Mongolia Data Cube to the National Agency for Meteorology and Environmental Monitoring (NAMEM). The Mongolia Data Cube is a local instance of the Open Data Cube that generates satellite-derived products used for dzud risk monitoring. With the SIBELIUs team and NAMEM doing the heavy lifting of working with satellite data , we began working together to have PRISM connect to the Data Cube.

Screenshot of Mongolia Data Cube
From space to the dashboard via the Mongolia Data Cube. Photo: WFP

PRISM focused on figuring out datasets and indicators needed to create a robust picture of risk. Risk is the interaction of climate hazards, exposure (i.e. the presence of people and assets in areas that could be affected by hazards), and vulnerability (i.e. the socioeconomic conditions that cause some groups to be more affected than others). Satellites provide an objective and scalable way to monitor hazards like droughts and extreme temperatures. To measure vulnerability and exposure, you need other data sources, including local knowledge and official statistics.

Working with our partners in government, we identified the most critical indicators to monitor. Mongolia’s National Statistics Office publishes official statistics to an open API. Through the API, we accessed the latest data available on vulnerability and exposure, including statistics on the distribution of livestock and herder households across the country, data on children under five, and elderly households, among other vulnerable groups.

API from Mongolia NSO
Where do herders live? Mongolia’s NSO API gives PRISM the latest. Photo: WFP

As we were working more closely with NAMEM, we learned more about their ground observation data. Every 10 days, NAMEM produces data that provides an important component of the dzud risk maps during the winter months, collected from over 300 weather stations across the country. We worked with them to develop an API that makes this valuable data accessible to PRISM to provide ‘ground-truthing’ to the satellite data, and also mirrors how the government monitors dzud while making their current processes more efficient.

PRISM data
Measurements from the ground. PRISM connects to more than 300 stations to collect data on temperature, wind and precipitation. Photo: WFP

Bringing all of these data layers together, PRISM produces analysis products that combine hazards, exposure, and vulnerability into a single output. PRISM enables users to choose a satellite layer and combine it with data about vulnerable groups or livestock to generate statistics and a map showing areas at risk.

Moving forward

We’re excited to launch PRISM in Mongolia with the help of UN-SPIDER, who will provide training and support to NEMA to make sure it is used to its fullest by all of our partners. As we’re approaching winter, PRISM will empower the Government of Mongolia with an easy-to-use system that brings together key components of dzud risk monitoring in a single dashboard.

Going forward, the project as a whole is making connections to the worlds of Early Action and Shock-Responsive Social Protection. Those programs have huge potential to protect the most vulnerable people from the impact of disasters before and after they happen. PRISM’s ambition is to make these programs work faster and more efficiently by providing data to them automatically. In Mongolia, this data could be life-changing: herders at risk could receive assistance before a dzud occurs, allowing them to protect their livestock, their livelihoods and their way of life. Read more about the PRISM project and see the live version of the platform.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.