Thumbs up to Asia-Pacific satellite drought monitoring
By Geoffrey Bell | Pacific Scoop
New Zealand aid agencies are praising the introduction of a new United Nations drought mechanism which will use satellite technology to monitor “high risk” regions in Asia and the Pacific.
After a three-day meeting in Nanjing, China, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) recently announced that a collective satellite system and information portal would be established to prevent drought hazards becoming major disasters.
The concept brief which was given to participants says droughts have affected more than 1.3 billion people and caused damages of more than US$53 billion (in 2005 prices) over 29 years in the ESCAP region alone.
Attending the meeting were representatives of drought affected countries Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
An ESCAP spokesman says while there are no existing satellites designated for use within the framework, a collective system will be established comprising contributory satellite products from sponsor countries such as China, India and Thailand.
“Countries will provide to the best of availability and capability products for identified high risk drought prone areas and/or regions. Confirmed high-risk drought disaster areas may be given higher resolution products through the mechanism,” he says.
Oxfam New Zealand spokesman Jason Garman says: “A system to help vulnerable people cope with droughts is welcome news… disaster risk reduction is an important part of climate change adaptation – helping vulnerable people to protect themselves from the unavoidable effects of climate change.
“Because rich countries are historically responsible for causing the climate crisis, justice dictates that they must provide the funding and resources necessary for poor countries to adapt,” he says.
Garman wants those who contribute to climate change to be held accountable at the upcoming UN climate change meeting in Cancun.
Countries not at the meeting in China but which are considered by ESCAP to be drought-prone, include Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa.
According to climate scientist Dr Andrew Lorrey from the National Institute for Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA), the Pacific region is currently being affected by La Niña.
As a result, Lorrey says the rain cloud which usually extends from Papua New Guinea down into the South-West Pacific has been moving south-west towards Australia.
“That has quite a significant impact on the rainfall that is received in countries like the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa particularly during what is normally the wet season, and it can cause significant droughts.”
Pacific event looms
Lorrey says while a “significant drought” is not being experienced in the Pacific, “the event is on”.
“One of the canaries in the coal mine, if you will, is looking at the patterns of drought or looking at the patterns of rainfall in Western Kiribati. Western Kiribati is now in its third consecutive month with below normal rainfall,” he says.
Each country, which is a member of the UN drought mechanism will be responsible for self-monitoring. An information portal will also be constructed so members can share information and experiences on how to manage drought situations.
The spokesman for ESCAP says: “The mechanism is built on the basis to encourage capacity building to enhance local monitoring and early warning by the member countries for themselves.”
A general monitoring service will operate on low and moderate resolutions ( > 1 km and ~ 250m respectively) in areas which are not considered to be of high risk.
High-risk drought areas will operate on medium-resolution satellite data (20-30 m).
ESCAP says the mechanism will be an effective drought monitoring system with early warning capabilities which will allow additional lead time for disaster managers, stakeholders and decision makers.
“Requesting aid earlier and getting it before disaster happens will be one of the significant opportunities that accurate monitoring and early warning provides,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says: “The New Zealand Aid Programme welcomes the United Nations-led effort to share information and data relating to drought and flood hazards and is supportive of international cooperation in this area.”
But he says any response by New Zealand to a natural disaster is only at the request of the affected country.
“Once a request had been received, we would tailor any response to specific needs.”
He says while there have been no droughts in the Pacific that have warranted New Zealand humanitarian support in the past few years, New Zealand stands ready to assist Pacific countries to respond to a natural disaster.
“If drought conditions were affecting a Pacific country and likely to have a significant humanitarian impact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade would activate the emergency task force – the cross-agency response mechanism which responds to natural disasters in the Pacific,” he says.
Further abroad New Zealand recently contributed $1 million to the World Food Programme’s response to serious food shortages in the Sahel region of West Africa. Severe drought in West Africa has led to crop failures and stock losses which have put more than 10 million people at risk of malnutrition and starvation.
The spokesman for ESCAP says they are currently looking into how the framework for the drought system could also be adopted for other disaster types, such as flooding.
“The advantage that the framework provides is that it brings to the table all the relevant contributory and beneficiary stakeholders to work towards one goal,” he says.
This article was originally published on Pacific Scoop on Oct 20, 2010. Geoffrey Bell is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.