Recent Developments in Remote Sensing for Human Disaster Management and Mitigation - Spotlight on Africa: An Overview

By Dr. Christopher Lavers

Conflicts, man-made disasters, and environmental mismanagement - part of mankind’s history even before reliable written human records began. Antiquity demonstrates that societies’ misplaced economic, cultural or social axioms can result in both gradual or sudden collapse of long established socio-economic and environmental order, often descending into periods of food scarcity, and technological stagnation, until society could find the required ‘paradigm shift’ – usually after much suffering. The now treeless Easter Island, and arid huarango free Nazca Peruvian Desert bare silent witness to Neolithic stone-age cultures which disappeared through environmental ignorance – and these are not isolated examples. 

Similarly a few more decades of global overconsumption will see consequent rising levels of scarcity in key resources: from food to natural and mineral resources, with increased environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale. The specter of increasingly disruptive and unpredictable climate, working in parallel with mankind’s insatiable desire to exploit finite natural resources, will lead to their rapid squandering on a scale before unseen in human experience. If these trends remain unchecked, the outcome will be disastrous for mankind and the only place we call home, the earth. 
Unresolved issues of justice lie at the heart of man-made exploitation, rich pan-national corporations causing significant environmental problems, whilst the poor bear the brunt of their impact. Indeed the phrase “the poor will inherit the earth” takes on a whole new meaning in the ‘lunar landscapes’ of tribal homelands decimated by monstrous mining machines.
Climate change is perceived by many to be a key factor which is increasing the probability of conflicts in unstable regions- notably in Africa, as fragile governance systems are overwhelmed by the social stresses released by: government policies, demographic changes, land clearances (and associated Internally Displaced People), consequent migration (economic or racially motivated), drought, famine and the “Arab Spring”, where long repressed social and political unrest has resulted in a grass roots movement for change – a process which is still far from complete.
Paraphrasing Nick Mabey, past advisor to UK Prime Minister Blair in his Summary of Delivering Climate Security, at moderate levels of change, conflict can be prevented in spite of climate change acting as a stress multiplier of existing tensions….. If climate change is not slowed and critical environmental thresholds exceeded, then it will become a primary driver of conflicts between and within states, with the likely consequence of further degrading the post-conflict environment, completing a vicious repetitive cycle of events [1]. This book, the first in the series, looks at several of these inter-related problems and focuses in part on the increasing role remotely sensed high resolution satellite imagery is now playing in Africa – a continent hitherto covered less by these technologies than others, particularly the Niger Delta. The relatively recent establishment of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment (AARSE) in 1992 will in the long term readdress this historical imbalance [2].
The mélange in this 2013 volume’s chapters’ case studies highlights the efforts taken to establish a full inventory of African environmental resources, the monitoring of land clearances under Zimbabwe governmental policy, as well as two excellent chapters reviewing various different aspects of the controversial practice of gas flaring in Nigeria, a review of the breadth of the UN monitoring and mapping capabilities and its response to various humanitarian problems, the work of the AAAS in documenting the most significant reported human rights abuses to date, culminating with an examination of hydroelectric dam construction on the Ethiopian Omo river (including similar mining-related issues). The different complementary methods and skills employed in these various case studies are considered as transferable for the completion of other continents and regional assessments. 
Over the next few decades, globalization combined with climate-change (natural as well as anthropogenic), will likely prove to be the decisive factors determining any increase in conflict and man-made disaster levels. The unknown determining response lies with how intergovernmental organizations, aid agencies, and other non-governmental organizations may influence governments’ political systems to respond to the challenges. Unfortunately, the assessment of mediating against the worst humanitarian excesses and impact of environmental and climate change includes the reasonable assumption that governments will act in a way to minimize such risks, even to their own regime stability, an assumption rarely found in practice. Previous studies of areas of regional and national conflict show that the non-cohesive natures of many so called ‘nation-states’ lie upon tribal and racial fault-lines, the very divisions that gave rise to the frenzied bloodbath in Rwanda between the Hutu and Tutsi in 1994.
Recent instabilities in Sudan- notably Darfur, and even more recently in the Sudanese Nuba mountains region, show how quickly centuries old racial and cultural disputes, under times of environmental stress, and access to oil and other mineral resources, become fertile breeding grounds for the birthing of violently opposed and radical ideological communities formed along such ethnic and religious lines. Stresses can then create a volatile situation if sufficient ‘temperature and pressure’ are applied, so that at some ‘critical point’ little additional internal or external application of force is required for a country to literally implode.
In human terms, as well as in consideration of the climate, there exist critical ‘tipping points’ in socio-economic systems beyond which a shift to a new ‘meta-stable’ or ‘quasi-stable’ condition results. It is the work of organizations like the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), which help to identify such points in their earliest crisis stage, and have the potential, unlike with natural disasters, of preventing, or substantially mitigating against the worst excesses resulting from conflict or man–made disasters upon the people and the environment in which they live. In parallel, recent studies by the American Association for the Advancement of Science are providing a comprehensive documentation of these allegations with evidence on a global scale.
High resolution satellite imagery ‘surveillance’ of such conflicts and disasters, as they first emerge and in the developing phase, offers the greatest promise to mitigate against them. However, it is unsurprising that regimes involved in racially motivated or religiously intolerant activities such as racial-cleansing or land clearances etc., have no desire for the wider international community to observe their practices (as discussed further in Chapter 1). It is much less costly to prevent a conflict in the emerging stage than deal with the post-conflict reconstruction or eventual peace keeping forces on the ground, of which Syria is extremely likely to become a near future example with the anticipated external costs of reconstruction already put at $60 US Billion [3].
Satellite imagery now provides users with very detailed imagery safely – unfortunately other colleagues on the ground have paid the highest price of getting ‘too close to the action’. In one case, unbeknown to us as a press release went out, an indigenous tribal leader, Kelly Kwalik in West Papua near the Grasberg copper and gold mine, had been killed the previous day. However, the ability to corroborate reports of human-rights abuse on the ground still relies heavily upon the people on the ground, often the most at risk from attacks or reprisals. In addition, those who escape are often severely traumatized by their experiences, and have real difficulties describing precise locations or village names in order to extract accurate GIS data. It is also often only the larger Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) organizations who can access conflict zones relatively safely level but is still only to a limited number of locations. Even so, conflicts like Darfur are high risk areas for ground personnel. In November 2007 13 United Nations (UN) and NGO vehicles were hijacked in Darfur alone, 74 aid convoys attacked and a total of 128 vehicles hijacked. It is often on these grounds that hostile regimes may then effectively bar NGO’s from an area on the context of risk to their own safety.
The work of large NGOs like the UN only tells part of the overall story as even the work of a broad spectrum of aid and charity related organizations will tend to serve only the same 80% of affected persons, such as in the concentrated Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, leaving the remaining diaspora under represented. It is in these situations that the work of charities such as the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), whose CEO Baroness Cox has bravely sought to provide aid and advocacy, in many trouble spots around the globe including: Sudan, Ngorno Karabach, etc. are essential. It is in the work of such charities looking at reconciliation, and rehabilitation that sows the real seeds for future hope (pre-and post-conflict) and the addressing of legitimate tribal concerns. Whilst the problems faced by a small tribal group pitted against the voracious appetites of a multi-national mining corporation), a real David Vs. Goliath scenario, serves as an unequal counterweight to the demands of unsustainable levels of environmental globalization. It is on the indigenous tribal front that organizations such as Survival International represent those with little voice in the world’s authoritarian legal governance structures.
All of these conflicts and man-made environmental disasters will have no long term sustainable solutions unless the root causes of resource related grievances (land, mineral, crops etc.) are addressed adequately. Achieving security, tribal, food etc., requires coordinated activity between governments, aid agencies, NGOs, and increasingly well-motivated groups using social media- the general public. Here high resolution satellite imagery provides critical information, not just in terms of detailed environmentally related data and images, but visual emotive symbols of the ground situation as well. The impact of visual imagery readily communicates the essence of a conflict or a disaster more effectively than the use of words alone to the untrained eye of the typical activist. In the last few years satellite imaging projects have been funded by Human Rights (HR) organizations themselves such as Amnesty International’s: Eyes on Sudan, Eyes on Pakistan and Eyes on Nigeria campaigns, to not only promote the large scale abuses to a wider audience via the Internet and traditional news media outlets, but to put the governments on notice that their activities are being watched.
Developments are now rapid, within the last year there have been further ‘public imaging’ developments with a consortia of concerned individuals including Hollywood film stars such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who have helped fund the Satellite Sentinel Project, which has monitored human rights violations of Sudanese people trapped in the Nuba Mountains, who have suffered in an ongoing genocide campaign waged against them by the Khartoum regime, with the dropping of bombs, use of anti-personnel devices and operation of helicopter gunships. For evaluation, the advent of a recent series of very high resolution satellites (GeoEye 2 etc.) will ensure that this requirement is met, at least in the short term, for those who have sufficient money to afford it, which is generally not the humanitarian and scientific academic community. It is also vital that the imagery technology develops at a pace sufficient to meet future demands.
One of the drivers behind this “themed” series of articles was to communicate the issues, the capabilities and limitations, strengths and weaknesses of the technology to a wider than usual audience, which would otherwise be limited to the academic community alone. The current constraints of most academic literature is that no matter how good, or how significant the findings, it is often read by only a handful of professional colleagues and affects little change in the wider world. This publication method provides a means of disseminating contemporary findings both as widely, and hope as quickly, as possible. For those wishing to do more than just read yet another book about high resolution satellite imagery, Appendix A gives some details about the organizations represented and discussed here, and some practical ideas to make a real difference to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. 
I am extremely grateful to all those who have contributed to create this ‘African volume’, and hope that you may meet some of us at future humanitarian disaster and remote sensing venues. On a personal note I would like to especially thank Mark Brender and his helpful team at the GeoEye foundation without whom the majority of my work would have been impossible. I also express my gratitude to Baroness Cox and Dr Lydia Tanner at HART who have been enormously supportive of my small efforts, and educating me in both the background and practicalities of aid organizations operating in the midst of humanitarian crises. 
As a final word the severest threat to the future of indigenous people groups lies in the lack of accountability of undemocratic governments, their own internal dealings with their people, and the profit driven ‘license to drill’ of international corporations who have limited accountability, even to their own shareholders. However, the first sign of co-coordinated practical response to these issues is emerging, but it needs to progress more rapidly if it is to overtake the ceaseless march of both changing climate and an unregulated global economy, a by-product of which, through cavalier corporate behavior, will otherwise be the degradation of both environment, and diminished cultural diversity. 
[1] Nick Mabey, (2008) Delivering Climate Security, Whitehall Paper 69 Royal United Services Institute ISSN 0268-1307. 
[2] (Accessed 02/11/2012). 
[3] Syria Would Need $60 Billion to Rebuild, Opposition Figure Says (Accessed 22/11/2012)
Reprint with permission by Dr. Christophoer Lavers, Copyright 2013, author of “Recent Developments in Remote Sensing for Human Disaster Management and Mitigation- Natural and Man-made 2013 - Spotlight on Africa” 

Published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Written by Dr. Christopher Lavers

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