How Satellites Save Lives

Relief agencies rely on instant images to help save lives, says Jeremy Close
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The Independent Online

Satellite navigation is becoming a normal part of our everyday lives; no weather forecast is complete without a detailed image from space. But satellites play a much bigger role than just reminding us to take an umbrella. Images from sophisticated Earth observation satellites such as Envisat, the largest ever built, are helping to save lives on a daily basis.

Humanitarian services across the world rely on satellite data for the production of maps to assess damage from natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, as well as monitor war zones.

The tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004 was one of the world's worst disasters in recent times, bringing destruction and devastation to hundreds of thousands of people. Local communications infrastructures were put out of action at a stroke, making it almost impossible to assess the extent of damage accurately.

In the immediate aftermath there was an urgent need for reliable voice and data communications as well as accurate images of the devastated areas - satellites provided the solution.

Relief agencies needed detailed information on all the affected areas to help manage and stabilise the situation. Between 26 December and 20 January over 200 unique maps were produced by Respond - an alliance of European and international organisations coordinated by Infoterra, a geo-information companies and a subsidiary of EADS Astrium. As well as overview images of the whole region, these maps covered the seven countries hit by the tsunami. Almost half of the maps focused on Indonesia with the majority covering the Banda Aceh area.

Data for the maps was sourced from 14 different Earth observation satellites including SPOT (Systeme Pour l'Observation de la Terre), QuickBird and IKONOS. The data was then made available to users via the internet, ensuring maximum availability to agencies and government authorities across the region.

Key to effective relief efforts is the ability to assess the scale of damage, and this is where satellite imagery plays its part. Detailed, up-to-date images can be compared with those from before the disaster to give agencies immediate evidence of the areas most badly affected.

In addition, the detailed maps derived from satellite data are vital for coordinating relief efforts and helping to establish whether roads or airstrips are still usable. Key installations such as hospitals, power stations and water supplies can also be identified reliably and location details passed quickly to agencies as this information is vital to staff, both on the ground and in the headquarters.

Satellite imagery can also play a major role in assisting with relief efforts in conflict crises. One recent example is the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in the Sudan. More than 2.5 million people are reported to have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in the region. The majority have been forced to relocate to camps near Darfur's main towns with conditions becoming increasingly difficult as there is not enough water, food or medicine to go around.

Infoterra, as part of the European Respond consortium, has provided satellite-derived maps of the area to agencies and officials including the Red Cross. The maps have been used to assist in the management of human health within the camps, by detailing outbreaks of disease and helping in quarantine efforts.

Detailed maps on a smaller scale have been used to determine more efficient routes for aid workers travelling between the airfields and the troubled areas. In one case, a previous 10-day journey was cut to less than three days, owing to new information about the true positions of tracks and damaged bridges derived from satellite imagery.

In October 2005, the Respond consortium was again called on to generate rapid-response crisis and damage mapping and situation mapping, following the devastating earthquake in Pakistan. Respond partners across Europe produced and delivered maps to official UN, national government and NGO humanitarian response teams. The maps showed before and after images, as well as the level of destruction suffered by major areas of population such as Muzaffarabad, the largest town closest to the earthquake epicentre, which was severely damaged.

Alex Irving, senior geo-information consultant at Infoterra Ltd, travelled to Pakistan as part of his work with MapAction to assist in the management of geographical data in the field. MapAction worked closely with the United Nations Emergency Response Centre (UNERC) established in Islamabad in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

But satellite images and data are not only useful following a crisis, they can also play a major part in helping to predict potential disasters and even simply improve the quality of life. For example, detailed images of land features are invaluable to researchers when creating sophisticated computer models of possible flooding.

Images of vegetation growth are also being used by farmers to enable more efficient management of crops resulting in a reduction in the amount of artificial fertilisers being used. Better crop management through better targeted watering also leads to improved yields. So, space not only saves lives, it improves the quality of lives too!

Jeremy Close is the director of communications and PR at Astrium

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