Indian Forest Ecological Sustainability

Indian Forest Ecological Sustainability

Our main objective is to improve the sustainability of forests in India by developing multi-satellite sensor-based observational portal system and integrating physical and social science data to quantify the value of ecosystem services


70 Mha
India’s current forest cover
loss of its native forest cover between 1860 and 1990s
loss of humid primary forests between 2002 and 2021
Logos of multiple places : USAID, The Ohio State University and Ohio State Geodetic Sciences, Planet, Forest Survey of India, Earth Sciences ITUAKADEMI

The Situation

By providing numerous ecosystem services (air and water purification, disease and cyclone mitigation, carbon storage and sequestration, support for biodiversity, provision of fuelwood, to name just a few), India’s forest cover, which spans ~70 M hectares, directly affects the livelihoods of over 300 million people.

However, India’s rapid economic and population growth have adversely impacted forests. For example, India has lost nearly 80% of its native forest cover between1860 and 1990s, and according to Global Forest Watch, it lost 371kha or 3.6% of its humid primary forests between 2002 and 2021.

The rapid loss of forest cover highlights the need to promote sustainable development in the country. This, in turn, necessitates an integrated physical-social science approach to effectively model the relationship between forest ecosystems and human well-being. This is the focus of the Remote Sensing for Forest Renewal, Ecosystem Services, and Sustainable Hydrological Management (REFRESH) project, in which the potential intervention strategies were co-designed with USAID, and the Indian partners.

The ultimate goal of the REFRESH project is to support the Government of India towards policies on pan-India forests.

Map of India covered with different hues of green, pink, yellow and white and a blue perimeter on 3 sides but not on top with map title Land Cover and Land Use in India (2022 Jan) at top and map legend of colors on bottom right with greens at top (Cropland, Forest, Grassland, Shrubland, wetland) and blue (water), gray (Tundra), pink (Impervious Surface), yellow (Barren Land) and white (Snow/Ice) at the bottom right.
Land Cover and Land Use in India ( Jan 2022)

 Our Work

The REFRESH project aims to help promote sustainability in India by (1) developing an innovative geodetic and remote sensing satellite-based forestry monitoring system, (2) linking remote sensing data to the provision of ecosystem services and human welfare, and (3) providing spatially explicit maps of ecosystem services to guide the siting of potential payments for ecosystem services schemes.


The geodetic and remote sensing satellite-based forestry monitoring system

The project uses a constellation of multi-band, multi-sensor scientific satellites, including all-weather (radar) sensors, with near-real time data at different spatio-temporal resolutions, and derive distinct forestry, surface/ground water, floods/droughts, and environmental variables. The approach is to develop and demonstrate the state-of-the-art multi-satellite sensor-based observational portal system with efficient open-source Machine Learning-aided big data analyses and processing, to holistically quantify physical processes impacting pan-India forestry, and to monitor natural hazards, water resources, and ecological changes.

This work includes:

1. Deep-Learning aided Land Use Land Cover classification

2. Ground water storage changes

3. Forest fire detection

4. Flood monitoring

5. Inland surface water level monitoring

6. Estimation of forest canopy height and aboveground biomass

7. West Bengal estuary mangrove forest wetland water level monitoring


The project outcomes have been consolidated into an observational portal system including state-of-the-art satellite data, along with guidance documents, which can be accessed here REFRESH-Forest (beta version). The satellite-based portal is an innovative API with novel visualizations, on-demand data project retrieval covering the pan-India forest study regions.


Quantifying the value of ecosystem services

A diagram of 4 horizontal boxes with orange arrows in between and text written in each. 1s box text states Forest change, 2nd states Change in Ecosystem services, 3rd states Change in livelihoods, economic activity and 4th box states Change in human well-being
Conceptual diagram linking changes in forests to changes in socio-economic outcomes (Modified from Pattanayak, 2004).

We use remote sensing data to quantify the change in forests. Using a combination of rigorous impact evaluation and non-market valuation methods, we translate changes in forest cover to changes in the provision of ecosystem services, and then to changes in human wellbeing. Specifically, the ecosystem services we consider are the mitigation of cyclone impacts in coastal areas, the provision of drinking water and water for irrigation, the mitigation of diseases (malaria, diarrhea, and acute respiratory infections), carbon storage, and fuelwood provision.

Translating the impact on the ground

Our project will disseminate spatially explicit maps of ecosystem services; these can guide the siting of future payments for ecosystem service interventions. Further, we will conduct capacity building exercises to train the trainers of the next generation of forestry stakeholders, expand job skill and training entrepreneurship for forestry inhabitants, while promoting an inclusive and empowering process to improve gender equality and empower women.


An outline map of India with white background and magenta and blue color dispersed around and legend for colors: White not Forest, Color blue has value 0,, gray has value no data, magenta value is 4267.76 and light pink value is 3200.82.
Spatial distribution of the annual malaria mitigation benefits from forests for 2015 (in USD/ha/yr).