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[CAPE TOWN] Senior government officials and scientists from more than 30 countries agreed at a meeting in Cape Town last week on the outline of an ambitious plan to link together thousands of earth observation facilities based on land, on sea and in space.

The hope is that this integrated system will eventually enable both rich and poor countries to improve their ability to monitor global warming and other environmental trends. This in turn should help improve the prediction of phenomena such as climate change and the expansion of deserts, as well as assisting countries to manage natural disasters such as storms and droughts.

But the meeting was also warned that developing countries will only benefit from such data-sharing if developed countries provide them with financial assistance to improve their capacity to make use of earth monitoring data, both in terms of human capital and infrastructure. And such data must be made available to developing countries at affordable rates.

The need for both capacity building and affordable pricing are acknowledged in a seven-page framework document drawn up by a high-level intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO), which has described the proposed global data-sharing mechanism as a "system of systems".

The framework document, which is due to be signed by ministers from participating countries in Tokyo at the end of April, will lay the groundwork for a detailed 10-year implementation plan that is expected to be signed in Brussels next February.

The initiative has its origins at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in August 2002, when nations called for improved cooperation and coordination among global observing systems.

The GEO was formally launched at the so-called Earth Observation Summit in July 2003, when 33 nations, plus the European Commission, adopted a declaration committing themselves to moving toward the development of a comprehensive, coordinated, and sustained Earth observation system.

According to Conrad Lautenbacher, the US under-secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and one of the GEO's four co-chairs, countries attending the summit recognised that better data collection and management were essential for improving the lives of the world's population.

The other co-chairs are Rob Adam, South Africa's director-general for science and technology, Achilleas Mitsos, the European Union's director-general for research, and Akio Yuki, Japan's deputy minister for education, culture, sports, science and technology.

Adam says that efficient data sharing could benefit developing countries in many ways, for example by helping predict droughts, pests, and even disease outbreaks.

He points out that South Africa already shares data on sun-spot activity, which is used to help predict bursts of cosmic ray activity that knock out communication satellites. The new initiative could assist the international community with more information on ocean conditions, such as changes in sea level and temperature, he says.

But Buyelwa Sonjica, South Africa's deputy minister for arts, culture, science and technology, sounded a note of caution during the Cape Town meeting, saying that developing countries would need significant assistance if they were to truly benefit from the proposed "system of systems".

She told the meeting that developing countries would need help in building local capacity for collecting and analysing data, and using it to make management decisions.

Daan Du Toit, director of strategic partnerships in the South African science and technology department, says that the GEO group has taken the needs of developing countries very seriously. He points out that the GEO framework document, for example, says it is essential to develop the capacity of developing countries to make use of earth monitoring data, both in terms of human capital and infrastructure.

Tamar Kahn is Science and Health Correspondent for Business Day newspaper.

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