The Myanmar cyclone and Chinese earthquake disasters demonstrated that the world has plenty of imaging satellites to monitor disasters but is still unable to make imagery and other data easily and widely available to emergency-response teams, government officials said.
The supply of imagery continues to grow. Italy’s Cosmo-Skymed and Germany’s TerraSAR-X radar satellites both contributed imagery to the relief efforts following the recent catastrophes in Myanmar and China. In terms of what is available, government officials said the combination of those two satellites, along with Canada’s Radarsat, has made radar imagery nearly as easy to obtain as optical imagery. “Today we can no longer complain about the Earth observation infrastructure,” said Delilah Al Khudhairy, head of the Institute for Protection and Security of the Citizen at the European Union’s Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy. “There is an overwhelming amount of product available. What we need is to facilitate the tasking of the data. It needs to be more user-driven.”
In presentations here May 27-28 during the Berlin air show, ILA 2008, Al Khudhairy and other government officials said the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters, created in 1999 to coordinate satellite operators’ response to natural catastrophes, needs to be made more responsive.
Charter members include the European Space Agency and the national space agencies of Argentina, Britain, Canada, China, France, India, Japan and the United States.
The charter has been activated 175 times since 1999, most recently May 12 when China, as a charter member, called on charter assistance following the earthquake in Sichuan province, according to figures compiled by the French space agency, CNES.
Because Myanmar authorities were reluctant to call on global assistance, the charter was activated by the United Nations (U.N.) to respond to that nation’s cyclone disaster.
David Stevens, of the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs and a coordinator of the U.N. Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, or Spider, program, said the two Asian disasters illustrate the danger of a duplication of effort among response teams turning imagery into usable maps for relief workers.
“This is the first time we have seen this,” Stevens said of the overlap of agencies assembling data on disaster areas. “It is an example of how things are developing and it needs to be resolved.”
Guenter Schreier of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which in 2003 established the ZKI Center for Satellite-Based Crisis Information — a 24/7 facility to assemble satellite data in the hours after a disaster strikes — said what is missing is a middle layer of data management between those assembling the data and those who need it.
One South African government official said the charter has proved difficult to activate for non-members whose domestic catastrophes do not rise to the level that attracts world attention.
“They have basically told us that our problems are not serious enough,” this official said.
Several officials said the charter has a budget and a mandate and cannot exceed either. Al Khudhairy said the mandate — natural disasters only — is a limitation that should be reconsidered. “We should be able to invoke the charter for human-caused disasters such as war refugees,” she said.
Jerome Bequignon, a European Space Agency charter representative, agreed that the charter remains incomplete without a way of delivering the goods quickly, and in an easily accessible format. Bequignon said the Group on Earth Observations, known as GEO, based in Geneva and created by around 60 nations, is assembling an Internet portal that ultimately should provide one-stop-shop service permitting disaster-response teams to select from a range of space-based sensors overflying the affected areas.
José Achache, GEO’s director, said June 5 that his organization is assembling such a Web site but that it is not yet ready. When it is, he said, at least one bottleneck in the disaster-response chain — where to go to find out what satellite data is available — will be removed.