High Above Earth, Satellites Help Direct Ground-Breaking Development Work

August 20, 2013


The World Bank works closely with the European Space Agency on projects that put Earth observation satellite data and analysis to use for development. Watch the slideshow.

  • A space-based partnership between the World Bank and the European Space Agency is opening up new frontiers in international development.
  • Using sophisticated Earth observation measurement systems from a constellation of orbiting satellites, eoworld provides scientific data and images to help communities in the developing world protect forests, plan urban growth, harness water resources, manage coastal zones, and increase resilience.
  • A new report highlights the success of eoworld’s demonstration projects and the surprising — and sometimes groundbreaking — impact on community development.

When the World Bank first teamed up with the European Space Agency to demonstrate how Earth observation can work for international development, a small climate change adaptation project on the coast of North Africa produced the first big results.  

High above Tunis, three orbiting ESA satellites sent down data pinpointing parts of the Tunisian capital where land was sinking, undermining the city’s ability to withstand storms, earthquakes and extreme weather.  

“The results from the satellite data were stunning,” said Sameh Wahba, manager of the Bank’s Urban Development and Resilience unit, which spearheaded the program. “They were quick, cost-effective and technically sound. They gave us visually impressive products that easily communicated the magnitude of the problem to our counterparts in government.  As a result, the government immediately incorporated smart risk mitigation policies into the city’s adaptation and resilience plans.”

In the five years since the eoworld collaboration began, the team has worked to demonstrate how this space-based technology can be applied throughout the Bank’s work in developing countries.  Offering highly specialized mapping and monitoring tools, the team has carried out demonstration projects in more than 20 countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The satellites deliver real-time data on a wide range of development issues, including climate change, sea levels, water quality, marine environment, coastal erosion, flooding, land movement, forest resource management, agricultural land use, and urban growth. 

" The use of satellite technology in our work is ground breaking in its ability to track information across hundreds of thousands of kilometers, in a manner that’s highly reliable and cost effective but not intrusive. "

Zoubida Allaoua

Director, World Bank Urban & Disaster Risk Management Department

The technology is especially useful in areas where conflicts, strife, or wars make it difficult to gather data, and it can provide wide-scale observations that cross country borders. A single satellite pass can take a high definition image of the entire Mozambique Channel in a matter of seconds. 

“One of the most difficult tasks facing developing countries is how to monitor large areas with limited resources,” said Zoubida Allaoua, a director in the Bank’s Sustainable Development Network. “The use of satellite technology in our work is ground breaking in its ability to track information across hundreds of thousands of kilometers, in a manner that’s highly reliable and cost effective but not intrusive.”

The partnership’s maritime surveillance system, designed for countries of the Mozambique Channel, detected 38 oil spills over a five-month period, providing authorities with enough real-time information to investigate suspected polluters.

In São Tome and Principe, eoworld mapping activities and coastline monitoring focused local authorities and the communities on climate adaptation, providing important data for plans to locate critical infrastructure and housing in less vulnerable sites. 

Arlindo de Ceita Carvalho, São Tome and Principe’s general director of environment, said the satellite mapping information is extremely valuable in efforts to counter coastal erosion and mitigate the effects of climate change.

“These products serve as a baseline and communication tool for the participatory risk planning with local communities,’ he said.

Satellite monitoring of the Lake Titicaca Basin, a UNESCO heritage site straddling the border of Bolivia and Peru, showed a 7 percent decrease in the size of the lake between 2003 and 2010, documenting for the first time the unprecedented degradation of the protected wetlands.  

“This is the only existing land cover dataset of this specific area in Boliva/Peru in more than 10 years, and definitely the first one with 5 meter spatial resolution,” said Marco Otto, chairman of climatology at the Technical University in Berlin. “It is an invaluable resource for detailed research on vegetation dynamics and land cover change within this data sparse region, which faces many future challenges in climate and resource management.”

ESA will launch a fleet of 20 new satellites by the end of the decade, making sure Earth observation data will be available for the next 20 years. 

“The new ESA missions will be part of the biggest Earth observation program ever developed,” said Maurice Borgeaud, head of ESA's Department of Science Applications and Future Technologies Department.  "And it will be supported by a free and open data policy.” 

And that’s good news for the World Bank/ESA partnership, where a recent report shows great potential for using Earth observation data to help developing countries. Some of the success stories include:  

Tracking land movement in Jakarta: Satellites accurately identified land movement trends in Jakarta and other cities at an unprecedented level of detail and accuracy. In Jakarta, pumping water from deep wells is causing the land to sink by as much as 10 cm a year. The information generated by the satellites helps manage ground water extraction (the main cause of the sinking land) and supports regular monitoring of high-rise buildings and coastal defense infrastructure.  

Gathering forest data in Liberia: Liberian authorities have struggled for years to get an accurate assessment of the country’s forest base. By 2004, most of the existing forest maps were outdated or fragmented and couldn’t provide a complete picture of the current forest inventory. The eoworld team used state-of-the-art satellite techniques to provide comprehensive land use mapping and forest baselines. As a result, the Liberian government now has the most accurate assessment of deforestation trends to date, and it is using the data to improve forest management and identify options for national land use reform.

Mapping water in Zambia: Rural communities in Zambia rely on small reservoirs for water, but incomplete existing inventories of these small water bodies made it difficult for local authorities to comprehensively manage resources. The eoworld project used remote sensing to identify and map small reservoirs in Zambia’s southern province and to provide information to assess water quality in Lake Malawi and erosion patterns along Malawi’s Shire River Basin.

The second phase of the ESA/World Bank partnership triples the size of technical assistance and expands the program beyond the initial technology demonstrations to mainstream the use of Earth observation in the developing world.