Satellite images put all eyes on Darfur

Satellite image of the destruction of a village in Darfur Copyright: DigitalGlobe

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A US science organisation has developed a system to enable human rights groups to access high-resolution satellite images and monitor the activity of military groups in Sudan’s western region, Darfur.

Researchers from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will analyse the satellite images and then make them available online.

Millions of computer users around the world can then track the status of settlements considered at high risk of attacks in the volatile Darfur region.

In particular, the AAAS is providing technical support to Amnesty International USA to monitor the activity of rebel groups and the Arab militia — the Janjaweed — accused of aerial bombardment of villages in Darfur.

The project was launched last week (6 June) at a digital earth conference at the US-based University of California.

The new site monitors 12 intact but vulnerable villages and also provides archived satellite photos showing the destruction of 12 settlements in Darfur since January 2005. Objects as small as vehicles, cows and fences can be seen in the images.

Since 2006, researchers at the AAAS have been exploring how to use scientific methods, including forensic science, satellite imagery and other space technologies to help advance human rights and prevent human rights abuses.

"[The project] is an excellent example of how science and technology can be applied to help expose human rights violations," said Mona Younis, director of the Science and Human Rights Programme at the AAAS, in a press release.


This kind of monitoring has become essential because the Sudanese government has been unwilling to grant entry permits to Darfur.

Hashim Mloso, field program manager with Save the Children in Darfur, said the launch of the program could help with preparation of contingency plans for relief agencies, as field staff usually need to go to villages to gauge the level of assistance needed.

But Oxfam’s pan African policy analyst, Houghton Irungu, told SciDev.Net that the project might not have immediate benefits for an organisation like Oxfam which already has operations in the refugee camps in Darfur — though it could be very useful for agencies intending to operate in the region in the near-future.

"It would contribute to Sudan’s overall development if it covered the entire country," he added.