How EO can help the Overseas Development Agencies (ODA) community

Event date: 
4 January 2021

In combination with ground observations, satellite Earth Observation (EO) can provide an abundance of data relating to the land, oceans and atmosphere. This blog describes how Overseas Development Agencies (ODAs) can benefit from the additional and unique information EO data provides and how it offers a key contribution to sustainable development activities.

Around the world, ODAs and International Financial Institutions (IFI’s) aim to invest in developing counties to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty. In turn, this creates healthier communities, greater opportunities for individuals and improved equality. However, by cultivating this growth, pressures are placed on the surrounding environment, depleting resources and enhancing pollutants. It has therefore become an integral part of the development process to not only stimulate growth, but to do so in a way that is sustainable for both communities and environment. An answer to this challenge can be found 800km above our heads, through the eyes of satellites, utilising their ever-growing datasets to monitor, track and sustain growth.

Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite

Sentinel-2 (Credit: ESA, 2020)

So why is EO data an enabling resource for sustainable development? First and foremost, EO offers a globally coherent and consistent source of environmental information. Earth observing satellites - such as the Copernicus Sentinels - scan the Earth’s surface from pole to pole, meaning nowhere on the planet is inaccessible to this form of data collection. It can even be the case that this is the only feasible method of collecting information from remote or difficult to access regions. Furthermore, with the same instruments viewing all regions of the globe, the consistency of these observations is very stable, allowing for reliable tracking of development over significant time spans and direct comparison between regions of interest. With these satellites imaging in multiple wavebands invisible to the human eye, the remote sensing techniques can extract information relating to climate, crop health, population growth, urban expansion, forestry mapping and pollutant tracking just to name a few, all while being a non-intrusive technology. This means the use of EO data has applicability in a plethora of project areas and across lifecycles, without direct interaction or adaption of the environment itself.

In 2016, the ESA EO4SD initiative ESA EO4SD initiative was launched to promote and facilitate the uptake of Earth Observation (EO) in international and regional development organizations. Since then the benefits of EO-based geoinformation products and services have been realised over a wide range of sustainable development use cases. In agriculture and rural development, these products have been utilised to address agriculture expansion and impact on deforestation in Bolivia and Paraguay; and to monitor the environmental impact of palm oil commodities expansion in Uganda. In the area of urban development, they have supported the Rwandan Government to improve methods of land valuation; provided information on location, size and growth of urban slums in Bangladesh; and supported the monitoring of transportation corridors during the development of new metro lines in Mumbai. Further themes have also included: climate resilience, water and marine resources, disaster risk reduction, and fragility in conflict areas.

One EO4SD demonstration case which perfectly presents the coherency and remote accessibility performance EO data can bring, was during an assessment of armed conflict on the agricultural sector in Syria. With agricultural statistics either inaccurate or entirely unavailable in many conflict affected countries, this is a prime example of how some areas can be inaccessible for in-situ measurement. In the demonstration, the “Environment Social Impact Assessment” intended to generate a multi-sector analysis of the agricultural sector in order to inform future policy decisions and reconstruction efforts to shape future development response. With access to a facility of archived EO data, a comparison of agricultural productivity was able to be made between pre-conflict Syria (2011) and Syria at the time of the demonstration (2016), as well as a direct comparison with neighbouring conflict free regions. Over this time-scale, low resolution satellite imagery was used to assess Above Ground Biomass, and therefore identify priority areas on a national scale in terms of abandoned land, productivity and loss of moisture. Once identified, higher resolution data (10-30m) could be implemented to classify the true agricultural extent of these regions, filtering out changes in natural vegetation. In the area of the Syrian AI Eis irrigation scheme (south-west of Aleppo), this technique showed that more than half the cultivated land had been abandoned in the progression of the conflict between 2011 and 2016. It is information such as this that has enabled the World Bank Group to address issues of food security as the conflict develops and also offers the potential for planning of agricultural sector revival to be implement once fighting has seized. More information on this, and similar projects and products developed in the EO4SD agriculture and rural development cluster can be found here.

Crop productivity in the AI Eis region in conflict year 2016 (centre image) compared with pre-conflict situation in 2011 (left) and non-conflict baseline in Turkish Ankalya in 2011 (top right) and 2016 (bottom right)
Crop productivity in the AI Eis region in conflict year 2016 (centre image) compared with pre-conflict situation in 2011 (left) and non-conflict baseline in Turkish Ankalya in 2011 (top right) and 2016 (bottom right). (Credit: EO4SD Agriculture Cluster – eLEAF/ GeoVille for ESA/World Bank, 2017)

Further demonstration cases have exhibited why EO can be such an effective resource in making sustainability an integral part of development activities. In one such case, the Zambezi River Basin Management Project has used EO services to achieve many monitoring tasks, for example, hydrological network mapping, water quality monitoring and tracking the river basin levels through satellite altimetry. As in-situ measurement networks in the basin have reduced over time, Sentinel 3 altimetry data offered the opportunity for wide-spread, continuous measurement, while using the remaining in-situ network to act as ground truthing to preserve accuracy. This has allowed IFI’s and Development Agencies to keep track of agricultural, industrial and urban water use in the region and hence how investment in these sectors is adapting the environment. More information about this and similar EO4SD water resource management projects and related products can be found here.