Satellites can help national ‘Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment’ says UNOSAT

June 2014, Geneva, Switzerland - Although UNOSAT is mainly known in UN circles for its long standing support to emergency response operations in humanitarian crises, its experts are adamant that the use of satellite derived geospatial information can be a game-changer in assessing vulnerability and estimating risk. In other words there is more about satellites and disaster risk reduction than what meets the eye.

This is not a recent revelation and UNOSAT has been presenting in various instances over the years arguments in support of applying this versatile technology to vulnerability and territorial planning as a means to increase resilience in the face of natural disasters. The Director of Research at UNITAR recalls: “one of the first successes of UNOSAT was a flood risk reduction programme in Central America integrating training, analysis and technical assistance. We used 3-D modelling to create a usable flood vulnerability map that literally changed the way an entire region dealt with their exposure to flood risk”.

Notwithstanding the high technological value of geospatial information for prevention, the camp of response seems to attract more attention from both the public opinion and the experts. “It is because there is more media coverage and faster funding mechanisms”, recognizes Einar Bjorgo who manages the UNOSAT Programme since 2013. “What we are trying to achieve is establish a good workable link between prevention, response and recovery, throughout which satellite analysis and geo-information maintain value and can be used more easily, rather than tilting the balance in favour of prevention or response, as if these two were antithetic”.

In practice UNOSAT has been putting its experience and skills to work to reach out to the community of national experts working around the full crisis management cycle. “At national level”, says Luca Dell’Oro of UNOSAT, “there is little sense in delving on the difference between prevention and response. Experts want to know their vulnerability, how to measure the risk, how to respond efficiently to threats, how to recover from disaster impacts”. UNOSAT has put together a training mix that, according to beneficiaries, helps them do just that, if nothing else in the limited realm of geographic information. “Geospatial Information Systems don’t hold the answer to everything. But they bring complementary information and a certain ease of access that facilitates coordination and efficiency”, continues Dell’Oro.

Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia are UNOSAT current areas of focus for testing this new approach to using technology for resilience. In the framework of the partnership between UNITAR-UNOSAT and UN-ESCAP, the latest example of successful training by UNOSAT happened in the Philippines in April. The learning course was the ‘Capacity Building Training on Applications of GIS and Geospatial Data Management for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Philippines’, organized by UN-ESCAP and Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD).

 
The course was customized to meet learning needs of 20 Local Government Operations Officers interested in learning the benefits and limitations of geospatial application for DRR. According to the feedback received after the training, participants have really appreciated case studies and GIS methodologies proposed by UNOSAT for both pre-disaster risk assessment and post-disaster satellite based impact and damage analysis.