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JRC turns satellites on Africa to help with management of resources

Joint Research Centre Head of Unit Alan Belward believes that Europe should be making further use of its Earth observation capabilities to assist developing countries, and that it should be prepared to do this in the long term. One could be forgiven, upon hearing this, for as...

Joint Research Centre Head of Unit Alan Belward believes that Europe should be making further use of its Earth observation capabilities to assist developing countries, and that it should be prepared to do this in the long term. One could be forgiven, upon hearing this, for assuming that Europe's activities in this field are currently insignificant. But the technology and data alone that the EU's Joint Research Centre (JRC) is contributing to solving some of the developing world's problems illustrates that this is far from true. And on 16 February, the JRC announced its next contribution to the development process - an Observatory for Environment and Sustainable Development for Africa. The JRC is already providing data, gained using satellites, to assist developing countries in managing their natural resources in a sustainable way. The information gathered and processed by the JRC is wide ranging, and covers forests, biodiversity, land-use, land degradation and water. The information is then used to provide land-resource maps for the whole of Africa, predictions for water resource exhaustion, and detection of forest logging. Natural resources are often crucial to poverty reduction in developing countries. Water, forests, agricultural and grazing land all have high economic, as well as social, value. Poor management can decrease their value for future generations, and even lead to complete disappearance, as in the case of degradation of agricultural land. Another source of income, an indirect result of the biodiversity present in many developing countries, is tourism. This has been recognised by the JRC, which is working with national parks in Central Africa in an attempt to improve park management and, in the long term, visitor numbers. The JRC is actually using satellite technology to track animals of interest to safari-goers. 'We are doing this not because elephants are more important than people, but because they bring in money,' says Dr Belward. 'When dealing with the developing world, satellites provide images that would otherwise never be seen,' he adds. Park rangers in the partner parks carry with them a 'cyber tracker' that Dr Belward describes as 'a cross between GPS and a palm pilot'. The ranger can press an icon on the screen to indicate that he or she has seen an elephant or a giraffe, or their tracks, or that he or she has heard a certain animal. The ranger also indicates the location of the sighting. The data can be recorded and monitored over time to gain a picture of an animal group's movements. The information can also be used to take tourists directly to animals, and to protect against poaching and logging. The JRC is not only helping out in real time, but is also looking to the future and the problems that it is likely to bring for developing countries. 'Africa is the most vulnerable to climate change and the least prepared to deal with it,' says Dr Belward. The data provided can be used by climate modellers to predict, among other things, where the first 'environmental refugees' will come from. This is a new concept defined by Dr Belward as someone who is made a refugee because the environment in which he or she was living can no longer support him or her. Two possible but very different examples would be the melting of glaciers or the drying up of water resources. Indeed, the JRC is already involved in humanitarian work. While its role in establishing the devastation caused by December's tsunami in the Indian Ocean is now widely known, its involvement with refugee camps in Tanzania is less familiar. The Lukole camp was set up in 1994 to host refugees from Rwanda, and is still in place more than a decade later. The JRC uses satellite imagery to count the number of family dwellings in the camps and to estimate the number of refugees. This information is then provided to the relevant Directorates-General so that they can disburse and control EU aid efforts effectively. Satellite imagery therefore ensures that aid goes where, and when, it is most needed. While the JRC uses European data where possible, there are circumstances in which this is not possible. The problem is not really a gap in terms of technology, but rather a lack of availability of data. 'We need to get ourselves organised,' says Dr Belward. The Observatory for Environment and Sustainable Development for Africa is a clear step in that direction. It brings together the JRC, other EU Directorates-General and EU delegations, in partnership with African countries, the United Nations and space agencies. Its primary tasks will be to use Earth observing satellites to monitor resources, to use geographic information to manage and analyse results, and to use models to generate scenarios. Collaboration in these areas will allow for the strategic orientation and programming of European aid, evaluating the progress of current aid efforts and improving coordination between different donors. Developing countries themselves will also be able to use the data to aid decision making and to support their involvement in the Rio Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.