Earth Observation for Development


Satellite monitoring reveals increasing pressure on the ecosystem of Lake Victoria, East Africa.

ACRI-ST & Hatfield Consultants

Satellite Earth Observation technology has tremendous potential to inform and facilitate sustainable development work. Since 2008, the World Bank and the European Space Agency have worked together to harness the benefits of earth observation for development.


A partnership between the World Bank Group and the European Space Agency (ESA) is opening up new frontiers in international development. Existing ESA capabilities, including Sentinel satellites, place it at the forefront of Earth Observation and make it a key partner in the application of innovative solutions to global sustainable development challenges.

Satellite Earth Observation systems provide scientific data to help communities in the developing world protect their forests, plan for urban growth, harness water resources, manage coastal zones, and increase resilience. The “Earth Observation for Development” initiative launched jointly with ESA in 2008 plays a crucial role in helping the World Bank operational teams and local stakeholders to access such remote sensing data and information services. This information has been used to:

  • Establish project baselines against which changes can be detected and mitigation measures determined;
  • Take stock of the progress and environmental impact of Bank projects;
  • Identify and address "hot spot" issues; and,
  • Support dialogue with local partners by putting development issues in a spatial context, in a reliable and unbiased manner.

The collaboration helps to broaden the knowledge base concerning the role of geospatial information in reducing poverty and promotion of shared prosperity and can significantly contribute to the identification of the next development frontiers. The tools developed through this partnership also support more informed, evidence-based and data-driven decision making. They allow the Bank to achieve its goals of Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions and reinforce Technical Assistance and capacity building activities dedicated to supporting the users of remote sensing and other spatial data in developing countries.


EO-based technology solutions have a big potential to drive the transparency of operations, significantly increase the effectiveness of projects management and enhance project implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Therefore the World Bank Group’s objective is to strengthen its institutional capabilities to effectively use satellite technology in operational and strategic work. Many investment projects have already developed a significant wealth of EO-based information datasets making these tools widely available to users in client countries and around the world, however there is still a need to develop more coordinated approach to deploy best available data and quality solutions in key sectors. To achieve this, ESA and WBG committed to the partnership to identify and address specific strategic information needs in priority areas, including Urban Development, Disaster Risk Management, Agriculture and Rural Development, Environment and Natural Resources, Water, Energy, and Fragile States.

Between 2008 and 2012, 15 technical assistance activities have been jointly implemented and final results were delivered in the form of EO-based services: highly specialized mapping products and monitoring systems that leverage Earth Observation data. The success of this initiative led to launching of an additional set of 18 technical assistance projects, which are currently under implementation.

In 2015, this partnership will enter a new stage to address an increasing demand for satellite-based information in Bank project preparation and management as well as impact assessment. This deeper collaboration will build on prior achievements and provide a more focused approach to priority sectors.


The projects carried out between 2008 and 2012 yielded substantial results, as featured in the WBG-ESA Partnership Report. Most significant achievements include:

  • Documenting and demonstrating the shrinking size and environmental degradation of endemic species through satellite monitoring in Lake Titicaca, a UNESCO heritage site between Bolivia and Peru.
  • Providing near-real time oil spill warning system to assess and manage pollution through a maritime surveillance system in the Mozambique Channel.
  • Analyzing urban expansion in India and Bangladesh (particularly in Delhi, Mumbai, and Dhaka ) as part of the Bank’s South Asia Megacities Improvement Program in order to highlight a rapidly growing need for quality data and information to better understand the distribution and evolution of urban land cover.
  • Assessing the exposure to hydrological and geological hazards (floods, landslides and urban land subsidence) of projects being implemented in Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, Egypt and Tunisia.
  • Creating a modern information system to enhance national data collection methods of small water reservoirs in Zambia.
  • Assessing the long-term trends of coastal change and sea-level rise in a timely and cost effective way in West Africa.

These results led to a second phase of collaboration in which ESA extended its support to produce and deliver EO information. Customized information is being provided to 18 new World Bank projects  that are currently under implementation globally and across several thematic groups.

Moreover, a new set of joint activities was initiated. These include collaborations in international water basins (Zambezi River Basin, Lake Chad), assessment of urbanization trends via the Global Urban Growth Data initiative, collaboration on the Great Green Wall initiative for the Sahel and Sahara to address land degradation, and the dedicated GEF-financed project to support forest data development (Satellite Monitoring for Forest Planning and Management). ESA has also actively participated in ESMAP’s Renewable Energy Resource Mapping knowledge exchange forum on the role of Earth Observation in the renewable energy sector, and was involved in discussions of the Policy and Technical Experts Committee (PTEC) of World Bank-hosted global partnerships like the Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Partnership Services (WAVES) to use Earth Observation technology for natural capital accounting. Finally, ESA shared its experience from the TIGER project dedicated to African national water authorities as well as the application of open source Water Resources Management tools such as the Water Observation and Information System.

Going forward

The World Bank and the European Space Agency have developed an increasingly strong working relationship ever since the beginning of their collaboration in 2008. To seize the growth opportunity, the partnership will scale up for the 2015-2018 period in three initial high-priority thematic domains: Urban Development, Water Resources Management, and Agriculture and Rural Development. The aim is to provide a systematic source of environmental information to develop best practices and sustainability plans, and achieve a step increase in the utilization of state-of-the art Earth Observation capabilities across World Bank regional teams.

The initiative between WBG and ESA is leading the way with regard to the use of satellite solutions for WBG projects, however WBG also collaborates with other high-profile agencies to leverage the potential of earth observation for development, including: the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).