According to 2014 figures of The World Bank, at least five countries in Central America have suffered natural disasters that have impacted their gross domestic product by 50 percent in the last eight years. It is too early to tell how long it will take for Nepal’s economy to recover from the devastating earthquakes that struck the country earlier this year, but the costs of rebuilding are estimated at $6.7 billion and 700,000 people are expected to be pushed to live below the poverty line.
The call for resilience against natural disasters from communities all over the world is in large part driven by the long-term economic consequences of disasters such as these, which sometimes wipe out decades’ worth of progress in already struggling economies.
As the value of space assets in disaster risk management becomes more prominent (to learn more, see “Disaster Risk Management,” Spring 2015; “Flood Modeling,” Summer 2015), experts are examining how satellite-derived tools can support efforts to build resilience in order to improve the ability of communities to recover from disasters. One useful tool is the United Nations’ International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, but it has its limitations. On Figure 1, note that only the small area in green was available via satellite imagery for response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
In August, the Secure World Foundation hosted “From Response to Resilience: Space and Disaster Risk Management,” the second panel on this theme as part of an ongoing effort to promote communication and exchange of best practices across the full spectrum of disaster management activities and the role of space-based assets in this effort. More information about the event, including speaker biographies and presentations, is available at http://swfound.org/events/2015/ disaster-risk-management-panel/.
The panelists discussed a number of challenges specific to the question of resilience. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Mark Mulholland provided an overview of the agency’s role in every step of the resilience cycle – from capturing and processing observations for the development of forecasts and warnings, to supporting recovery efforts. Focusing on the challenge of communicating with the public, Mulholland highlighted NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation initiative aimed at “building community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather and water events.”
This initiative recognizes the importance of both accurate and timely information and of developing effective communication policies before, during, and after extreme events to improve response. According to Mulholland, one of the lessons learned has been to develop “impact-based” forecasts and warnings to include examples of how citizens may see their lives disrupted following the extreme event. A warning of a Category 3 hurricane, for example, may include phrases such as “trees will uproot and block roads.”
Among efforts to improve engagement with the general public are those surrounding crowdsourcing, an effort to help address a second challenge towards building resilience: analyzing the vast amounts of data generated to extract actionable information. DigitalGlobe’s Luke Barrington described the commercial remote sensing provider’s crowdsourcing activities in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. In addition to providing before and after images to decision makers working on response and rescue efforts, DigitalGlobe launched a campaign to involve the crowd in damage assessment by publicly releasing imagery through the Tomnod platform and inviting volunteers to identify damaged infrastructure, major destruction, and temporary shelters set up by those displaced by the earthquakes. See Figures 2-3. According to Barrington, 61,000 “taggers” participated in the campaign. Efforts such as this help translate pixels into insight, said Barrington, creating information that is verified for reliability before being transferred to the field to support decision making.
In the aftermath of disasters, communities will look to make investments to build capacity in using geospatial information tools in their decision making, a key step to building resilience against future emergencies. Towards this end, organizations such as the Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education for Latin America and the Caribbean (CRECTEALC) help provide technical training to disaster management practitioners.
According to CRECTEALC’s Sergio Camacho-Lara, many communities that would benefit from the use of space-derived information lack awareness not just of how to use or access this information, but even of its existence.
Fortunately, several institutions around the world are partnering to address these challenges at the regional and national level. Camacho-Lara highlighted lessons learned from three recent capacity-building workshops held in Mexico since 2013 for practitioners in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Camacho-Lara described the series as a “success story,” in part because it has led to steps to the establishment of a working group to promote the exchange of best practices among the larger regional community.
The discussion among panelists and audience members indicated that improving communication, participation, and the exchange of best practices and information is needed not just between data providers and users. The contributions of the different stakeholders in the space and disaster management community can only grow as policy and practice are put in place to build on insights gained through their diverse experiences.