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A new satellite-based information system will allow poorer nations to gain cheap access to crop, health and climate data, enabling them to better prepare for natural disasters.

Starting next year, the GEONETCast system will give countries access to data gathered by satellites and weather stations run largely by the world's richer nations.

To receive the data, users must buy a receiver and a US$1,500 licence fee.

The system combines satellites operated by China, Europe and the United States, and was demonstrated this week (28 November) at a conference of the Group on Earth Observations in Bonn, Germany.

The satellite data could be used by officials trying to contain forest fires, who could use near real-time data on wind speed, wind direction and surface temperature to forecast the course of the fire.

Data on soil moisture, rain and vegetation cover could help officials forecast droughts, enabling farmers and governments to take preventive steps.

China's participation in the project gives it access to a more comprehensive global data set and the chance to improve its satellite technology, said Zhu Xiaoxiang, a senior researcher at the National Satellite Meteorological Centre.

"It will allow us to obtain more complete data from countries with better satellite technologies, such as the United States and the European nations," he told

"The accuracy of our satellite data is dissatisfying," Zhu said, citing infrastructure weaknesses. "Based on the new system, we can foresee many related academic exchanges in the future that may help us and other developing countries advance our devices."

He said the new system will particularly benefit small and poor countries, which have no ability to develop their own satellite technologies.

Satellite-based climate monitoring will be a priority for China, says Zhu, which can help policymakers tailor farming strategies in different areas.

"Policy decisions and quick decision-making in developing countries requires data, and most of the developing countries do not have the infrastructure," Philemon Mjwara, director-general of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, told the Associated Press.

The Group on Earth Observations includes 66 countries, the European Union and 43 international organisations.

The group's GEONETCast project is organised by China, the United States, the World Meteorological Organization and EUMETSAT, which operates European weather satellites.