How Light Detection Technology for Irrigation Surveys Could Boost Food Security

With bathymetric LIDAR technology, Indonesian agencies can pinpoint infrastructure that needs upgrading to improve irrigation potential and yield. Photo credit: ADB.

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Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology can be a game changer for managing irrigation networks and raising agriculture productivity in Indonesia.


Lack of irrigation is a major concern in agriculture. In Indonesia, not all irrigation systems function at full capacity, which limits yields and livelihood for the rural poor.

The government sees boosting rural incomes and improving food security as priorities. It has set a framework for irrigation infrastructure management and operation and maintenance, but budget and implementation are lacking. Infrastructure is suboptimal and water distribution to farmers is unreliable.

To help address Indonesia’s irrigation concerns, the Integrated Participatory Development and Management of Irrigation Program, which is supported by the Asian Development Bank and the Netherlands Trust Fund under the Water Financing Partnership Facility, piloted the use of bathymetric light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology to survey irrigation networks in the country.

The pilot survey was conducted in the Wadaslintang irrigation area in the Kebumen and Purworejo districts of the Central Java Province over an area of about 6,000 hectares, covering three different canal categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

LIDAR Technology for Agriculture

LIDAR works similar to a radar. However, it uses beaming light pulses instead of radio waves to examine the earth’s surface. LIDAR is typically used for maps and modeling, emergency response operations, hazards assessment, city planning and the like. In Indonesia, it is mainly used by the private sector, especially to monitor palm oil plantations.

LIDAR comes in two types: topographic and bathymetric. The former uses near-infrared to map land, while the latter uses green light that can penetrate water to assess riverbeds and the seafloor. In Japan, bathymetric LIDAR is used to monitor rivers and shorelines.

Simply put, LIDAR is like having a doctor use a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to diagnose the state of fields and water resources.

For the first time in Indonesia, the bathymetric LIDAR technology is being used and has been applied to agriculture to help systematically check the status of irrigation and water distribution networks.

The survey involved airborne topographic and bathymetric LIDAR technology, as well as digital air photo and ground survey for field assessment and validation of the LIDAR data. This gave the project team information on the dimensions and conditions of the land, the canals, and other related structures. With the bathymetry penetrating water up to 60 meters deep, the team also gathered information from rivers within the area.

Advancing Irrigation Asset Management

To complement acquisition of field surveys using bathymetric LIDAR, the project upgraded the irrigation asset management information system previously developed by the government of Indonesia to conduct operation and maintenance and needs-based budgeting.

The previous irrigation information system did not have geographic information system (GIS) capability or online updating. Consolidating data at the subnational and national levels was challenging, and field surveys and data entry had to be entered manually.

The irrigation asset management information system has been upgraded to a web application with spatial mapping capabilities, and it is complemented by an android-based application to capture field information. Combining this platform with bathymetric LIDAR technology could improve interpretation and the quality of asset inventory.

The pilot initiative also enabled the project team and the national mapping agency to evaluate the capabilities of LIDAR technology for irrigation asset management, especially the bathymetric LIDAR for canals, ditches, and other water bodies (where water and weather conditions can be challenging).

In addition, the project team developed methodologies, prepared technical specifications, and identified enabling factors for conducting asset inventory using LIDAR and satellite-based technology, as well as determined required institutional changes.

Dialogues on LIDAR and image standards were conducted with the national mapping agency, and briefs on different technologies for irrigation were prepared—from tapping drones to LIDAR and radar.

LIDAR technology, coupled with the enhanced irrigation asset management information system, will bring substantial operation and maintenance cost savings and budget allocation efficiency for the government. It will also reduce time spent for field surveys.

LIDAR’s precision will also allow government agencies to pinpoint where the irrigation infrastructure rehabilitation is needed the most. This is expected to help fix the agriculture network and help farmers water their crops and earn more.

Eric Quincieu
Principal Water Resources Specialist, Agriculture, Food, Nature, and Rural Development Sector Office, Sectors Group, Asian Development Bank

Eric manages a portfolio, ranging from flood risk management to irrigation and water supply development and asset management. He has over 20 years of experience in water resources management in Asia, expanding his expertise over the years from developing hydrodynamic models and information systems for O&M and designing irrigation system and flood protection infrastructure to river basin development and irrigation management. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Physics and Chemistry and a Master of Science in Hydraulics.

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