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  • Satellite images could aid long-term disaster recovery

[LONDON] Satellite images could be used to track and quantify long-term recovery efforts in regions stricken by natural disasters, say researchers who will be entering talks with potential users in Haiti, Pakistan and Thailand from April.

In the immediate aftermath of a natural catastrophe, such as the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier this month (11 March), the priority is searching for survivors and saving lives through providing food, shelter and basic sanitation.

But longer term recovery — including the rebuilding of infrastructure and amenities such as schools and hospitals — can take decades, depending on the extent and the location of the disaster.

Now, a group based at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, working with industrial partners Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd. and ImageCat Inc., says it has developed the first systematic approach to monitoring and evaluating this process. The method, which has been submitted to Disasters journal, involves tracking a region using high-resolution satellite images, which have become more abundant and affordable in recent years.

The researchers say that the required, one-metre resolution satellite images can be purchased for US$25 per square kilometre, and updated images can be acquired every 2–3 days.

"The last year — especially since the 2010 Haiti earthquake — has seen an increased interest in the use of high-resolution images as a damage assessment tool," Daniel Brown, a member of the Cambridge team, told SciDev.Net.

A recovery monitoring system could improve coordination and decision-making, and warn if the reconstruction is not going according to plan, say the researchers.

"Analysing past recovery processes will also allow us to identify examples of good and bad practice and to provide 'lessons learned' to stakeholders that can hopefully be applied to future and ongoing responses," Brown said.

Their approach is to integrate satellite data into 13 'performance indicators' such as length of roads and distribution of housing. Data is then compared with on-the-ground reports collected from household surveys and interviews with recovery workers.

The method is based on two case studies, in Pakistan and Thailand, which are documented in the team's report, 'Disaster Recovery Indicators', aimed at policymakers and released last year.

In April, the researchers will begin a one-year project in which they hope to work more closely with the authorities in Haiti, Pakistan and Thailand. "We hope the system will be ready to deploy by the end of the [one-year] project," Brown told SciDev.Net.

They also hope to develop links with other nations and international organisations, and dispatch researchers to Japan.

Sarah Bailey, research officer at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute said: "Finding practical and systematic ways to link technology with reconstruction processes could play an important role in monitoring progress".

But she warned that the complexity of how and why communities and governments recover from disasters is difficult to capture through such indicators alone.

Link to full report 'Disaster Recovery Indicators'  [8.79MB]

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