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Satellites can save lives from natural disasters but developing countries risk missing the opportunity through poor political support.

Successfully applied, new technologies can accelerate a country's development and help transform its people's socioeconomic prospects.

This is never truer than for satellite technology. Telecommunication satellites, for example, are already delivering teaching material to remote communities and advice to farmers on when to plant their crops.

Satellites offer developing countries another opportunity to improve living conditions — remote sensing for disaster management.

And that's important. The developing world suffers more than 95 per cent of all deaths caused by natural disasters. Last year alone, two disasters — cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the Sichuan earthquake in China — killed more than 225,000 people.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, developing country governments rarely fully appreciate how remote sensing satellites could reduce this death toll. And most don't provide the capacity and resources to make it happen.  

Power from above

Satellites collect accurate, frequent and virtually instantaneous data over the whole world. They often offer the only way of viewing disaster areas.

The developed world already harnesses remote sensing to monitor and manage disasters. In 2005, for example, several NASA satellites tracked Hurricane Katrina's structure and strength throughout the storm's life cycle, providing data to guide recovery in the aftermath, assess damage and analyse environmental impacts.

Some developing country governments also rely on remote sensing to cope with natural disasters. When a severe earthquake hit Sichuan province in China last year, for example, nearly 1300 satellite images were processed to monitor and evaluate damage, mitigate additional threats, and guide relief workers through affected areas.

But many of the world's poorest countries — often also the most vulnerable to natural disasters — have been slow to take up satellite remote sensing for disaster management. Partly this reflects access barriers such as cost.

Collaborations like the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters offer governments free satellite data, from cooperating space agencies, to help cope with ongoing disasters. But there are still costs for long-term monitoring and predicting risk.

Sometimes (but not always), the limited uptake comes from implementation barriers — countries may lack the institutional infrastructure or human expertise to quickly analyse and interpret satellite data, and disseminate it to emergency services.

But arguably the most significant barrier in the world's poorest regions is a lack of political support. Very few politicians — particularly in Africa — have shown interest in remote sensing, or much understanding of how it can help manage natural disasters.

Shared lessons

This week, we put satellite remote sensing for disaster management under the spotlight. Our series of articles shares lessons learnt from successful applications, highlights gaps in knowledge, and provides advice to policymakers.

A background article outlines the key ways of using satellite remote sensing to manage natural disasters. It also discusses important issues for the developing world, including data access and investment (see Remote sensing for natural disasters: Facts and figures).

How far developing countries should invest in designing and launching their own satellites is a particularly awkward issue, especially given the increasing availability of free data from existing satellites (see Launching your own satellite — the pros and cons).

As the director of the Space Application Centre in India, Ranganath Navalgund, argues, disasters come in all shapes and sizes, all requiring slightly different types of data. No single satellite can hope to meet all these needs. Rather, he says, disaster managers need dedicated constellations of satellites with multispectral sensors (see Disaster management needs satellite 'constellations').

Still, much can be done with existing datasets. Philip Frost, from the CSIR-Meraka Institute in South Africa, shows how combining free satellite data with everyday technology, such as mobile phones, can provide cheap and effective tools for managing fires (see Fires: Spotted from satellites, warned by phone).

Volcano expert Geoff Wadge, from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, also relates how data procured through the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters has provided disaster managers with crucial information, speeding up and improving emergency planning (see Satellites offer crucial data for volcano safety).

But since the charter only kicks in when disaster strikes, it does little to help developing countries reduce long-term disaster risk. Focussing on earthquake monitoring in Africa, technical director of a South African earth sciences consultancy firm, Chris Hartnady, argues that to reduce risk we must build public awareness of natural hazards through community preparedness programmes and schools (see Africans need earthquake education).

Even more important, according to Kenyan parliamentarian Wilbur K. Ottichilo, is convincing decision-makers that remote sensing is a viable option for reducing disaster risk. In Africa, Ottichilo points out, policymakers must often balance limited budgets against more tangible problems than future disaster risk (see Satellites can help monitor and manage African droughts).

It's never been easier

Yet satellite remote sensing should be an 'equal opportunity' technology — in that it offers the same quality and quantity of data regardless of location.

Arguably, developing countries can jump stages of development and take advantage of the latest technology. Equipment and software are certainly cheaper than ever. Ready-processed satellite data are increasingly made freely available. Geographical information systems — similarly cheap and user-friendly — can also help integrate relevant local and regional data, such as population density or building stock.

And in many developing countries there is no lack of skilled personnel for analysing and using remote sensing data. In Africa, for example, the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (established by the UN Economic Commission for Africa), has done much to promote remote sensing and GIS on the continent through capacity building and advisory services.

But the frustration is that trained people rarely get the opportunities or facilities to apply and use their knowledge.

The sad truth is that without political buy-in from the top, remote sensing for disaster management will remain a distant dream for poor countries. That will keep the world's most vulnerable populations at the mercy of nature's vagaries for far too long.

Sian Lewis
Commissioning editor, SciDev.Net