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19 October 2011

Symposium discusses leveraging satellite applications to enhance emergency response

The role of satellites in a wide range of humanitarian and emergency actions including tropical cyclone monitoring, flood relief and prevention, post-crisis reconstruction, disease eradication and human rights protection was examined at a two-day seminar organized by the World Meteorological Organization and UNOSAT, the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

The Symposium “Leveraging satellite applications for global challenges” featured speakers from the United Nations System, non-governmental organizations, Member States and the commercial sector to discuss the latest advancements of satellite technology and the practical innovative solutions being used today for humanitarian purposes.

WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud recalled that in 1960 the first meteorological satellite TIROS-1 (Television InfraRed Observation Satellite) began providing unprecedented pictures of cloud distributions and the potential for an advanced observing system was recognized immediately.

Over the half-century since TIROS-1, satellite information has evolved from qualitative “pictures” to high-resolution quantitative digital data on the atmosphere and its land-sea interface. Furthermore, environmental satellites are being used today for a wide variety of applications, spanning scales ranging from nowcasting to climate prediction, and it would indeed be difficult to mention an area in operational meteorology that might function equally well without any satellite information,” Jarraud said in a closing speech 12 October.
He said the World Meteorological Congress has launched the decisive phase for the establishment of a Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS), in particular to sustain decision-making by providing climate information to all socioeconomic sectors. “GFCS will be a common undertaking of the UN System As One and I am indeed confident that UNITAR, through UNOSAT, will make significant contributions to this new challenge,” he said.

Francesco Pisano, Manager of UNOSAT, underlined the importance of deriving concrete and usable solutions using the rapidly evolving technologies offered by the satellite industry and space agencies. Barbara Ryan, Director of WMO’s Space Programme underlined the importance of maintaining the dialogue between users and providers so that gaps can be bridged and practical solutions can be devised.

The Symposium 11-12 October hosted the first briefing in Geneva by the Board of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, an international covenant established by a number of national space agencies and the European Space Agency to provide free satellite data in case of major natural disasters. Alice Bunn of the UK Space Agency, who represented the Board of the Space Charter, explained how the Charter provides data to UNOSAT and other entities in charge of analysing satellite imagery to support immediate disaster response.

“It is clear that there is tremendous value in space agencies working collaboratively to deliver space data to help disaster response efforts worldwide. It is important that we work together with all the actors along the chain of emergency response so the right information gets to the right people, as quickly as possible,” she said. The Charter has been activated more than 300 times in the past 11 years in some 100 countries worldwide. One recent example was during the 11 March earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, where satellite imagery was used to help pinpoint the most urgent disaster response priorities.
A case study on the 2010 and 2011 Pakistan floods, attended by Qamar Uz Zaman Chaudry, Permanent Representative of Pakistan to WMO, examined the importance of satellite applications in managing natural disasters.

US Geographer, Lee Schwartz and the Director of the GEO Secretariat, Jose Achache were among the guest speakers, which also included representatives of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch.

Leading satellite companies presented their current and future technology. Technical and commercial efforts are at the forefront in deploying satellites whose performance is shaping information management in UN humanitarian and human rights agencies that rely increasingly on satellite derived analysis and mapping to take informed decisions and implement efficient coordination in the field. The presence of Google, with whom UNOSAT has a robust cooperation, brought into light the growing role of crowd sourcing: dozens of UNOSAT maps during emergencies have counted on baseline information provided by volunteer citizens via the MapMaker platform of Google.

The Symposium follows the 2005 UNITAR/OCHA Symposium, which was also focused on satellite applications in emergency response.