By: Jaewon Son (Guest Writer)

In recent years, water-related disasters have occurred more frequently as a result of climate change and urbanisation. For example, according to a 2015 report from the United Nations Economic Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), Asia and the Pacific region has experienced losses of $1.15 trillion and 2 million lives over the past four decades due to water- related disasters. For large-scale disasters, like tsunamis, it is particularly difficult to observe and understand the full extent of the damages during the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

One of the ways to detect the surface of the natural disaster area is by using satellite- generated images that have been processed by specialised computer systems and then interpreted by natural scientists.

© / by Free-Photos

Therefore, the utilisation of satellite technologies is increasing in the field of water-related disaster management, as it is an extremely effective tool for assessing the extent of damage caused immediately following a flood or hurricane. The United Nations (UN), the European Space Agency (ESA) and other international communities have worked tirelessly to reduce the risk of large-scale disasters together using satellite-based observation.

Satellites help international organisations and state governments to analyse broader areas potentially subjected to drought and heavy rainfall at lower costs than compared to traditional assessment techniques.

Though disasters still need to be managed on the ground by humanitarian aid resources, more efficient and concerted responses can be carried out when there is more specific geospatial information provided.

Without wasting time and resources in trying to get to the people in need, proper assessment about how much aid and resources are actually required for the scope of the disaster is more precisely determined with remote sensing. By expanding the monitoring capabilities regardless of the size and degree of the disaster, the application of satellite remote sensing to water disaster management and emergency response systems has become an innovative focus of international organisations.

The range of applications of satellite imaging spans from monitoring the precursors of potential natural disasters to providing precise image and spatial information for rapid restoration. In particular, high-resolution satellite images are best suited for acquiring on-site information in the event of a disaster by monitoring changes before and after the event.

The images can help identify changes to objects on the ground, such as buildings and vehicles that may have been displaced or destroyed. Sub-meter resolution satellites, such as the Korean Multi-Purpose Satellite (KOMSPAT), have also been developed to observe the entire earth once per day while identifying objects smaller than 1-meter long and wide.

Nevertheless, the 1-meter class high-resolution satellite is still limited by its real-time observation of a wider area affected by a disaster if the operation system only includes a single satellite in orbit.

Only a few countries, such as the United States, Japan and the European Union, run several satellites simultaneously since space programs require highly skilled human capital and financial resources to develop, launch and operate technologically advanced satellites.

Other countries either integrate images  generated from the other countries’ satellites or resort to operating satellites equipped with multiple sensors, counterintuitively making them less versatile. 

Although most of the satellite imagery of the ESA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is public information, many developing countries most prone to climate-related natural disasters do not have access to computers with the processing power required to utilise satellite imagery given the sheer volume of data.

Even with 4,994 satellites in orbit around Earth, there is still room for improvement. For example, how an international organization should most effectively monitor and inform developing countries when a natural disaster is anticipated.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa has already begun developing a solution by linking free satellite data with the mobile phone technology, which enables early warning systems for the local citizens.

Enhancing water and disaster risk reduction in the global perspective would not be possible without addressing the lack of access to the satellite data in developing countries. Disaster risk management starts with awareness of a potential disaster and the resources to mitigate the risks.

A potential starting place would be for international organisations to engage with education authorities in developing countries to increase disaster awareness and nurture skilled personnel for disaster management and emergency response. A major component of these educational programs could include remote sensing to better prepare for climate-linked disasters of the future.