Understanding Earth Observation and its diverse uses
According to the Group on Earth Observation (GEO), “Earth observation (EO) is the gathering of information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems”.
“It involves monitoring and assessing the status of, and changes in, the natural and man-made environment. In recent years, Earth observation has become more and more sophisticated with the development of remote-sensing satellites and increasingly high-tech “in-situ” instruments. Today’s Earth observation instruments include floating buoys for monitoring ocean currents, temperature and salinity; land stations that record air quality and rainwater trends; sonar and radar for estimating fish and bird populations; seismic and Global Positioning System (GPS) stations; and over 60 high-tech environmental satellites that scan the Earth from space.”
As the world struggles with repeated challenges like climate change and global warming, air quality, territorial conflict, multilateral land disagreements, maintenance of natural resources, maintenance of manmade resources (like dams), and other challenges, EO data has become of prominent importance towards solving these challenges.
How big is this sector?
According to Euroconsult, global satellite-based Earth observation combined market potential was estimated at USD6 billion in 2020, and it is expected to reach USD15 billion by 2026.
Due to the high cost of running this sector of the space industry, top involvements in the sector is led by governments, with growing private sector involvement. As many as 34 governments have launched over 200 satellites for EO related activities.
The heavy involvement of governments means they fully understand the importance of EO and are using it accordingly. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States NASA, the European Space Agency, the Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD), and the academic community are at the forefront of an effort to integrate results of frontier research into better policy guidance using EO data. This is a lesson for Africa.
EO and Africa
The African Space Strategy outlines the importance of EO in development. The strategy mentions that “in countries where the failure of a harvest may mean the difference between bounty and starvation, satellites have helped planners manage scarce resources and head off potential disasters before insects could wipe out an entire crop. For example, in agricultural regions near the fringes of the Sahara desert, scientists used satellite images to predict where locust swarms were breeding and were able to prevent the locusts from swarming, thus saving large areas of cropland. Remote sensing data helps with the management of scarce resources by showing the best places to drill for water or oil. From space, one can easily see fires burning in the rain forests as trees are cleared for farms and roads. Remote sensing satellites have become a formidable tool against the destruction of the environment because they can systematically monitor large areas to assess the spread of pollution and other damage. Such monitoring capabilities are critical for the long-term sustainable use of the continent’s scarce resources.”
Despite this recognition, not all African countries are able to utilise EO data. Only eleven African countries have launched satellites, with 17 (out of 38) satellites being EO satellites. While African countries are focusing on sharing data towards regional development, there is still a long way to go in terms of EO development on the continent.
Why Africa needs EO in policy formulation
A Policy is a set of principles or guidelines that help governments, institutions and agencies to coordinate their activities in like manner, using data, information and resources to understand the gaps, available resources, and draw a roadmap for future engagement and resolution of such challenges. While the importance of EO has been stressed, policies hinging on EO data becomes difficult because the data is not available in the first place. While 29 African countries are members of the GEO towards benefitting from EO data, the number is low considering Africa’s 55 nation population.
The successful achievement of pacts, agreements, and deals bordering on sustainability such as the SDGs, Africa 2063 Agenda, and other such global agreements, rests on the unanimous execution of the set goals by all countries. Adequate policy formulation to providing sustainable solutions now involves using geospatial data with other traditional information to identify challenges.
Food scarcity, tracking biodiversity and wildlife trends, measuring land-use change (such as deforestation), monitoring and responding to disasters, including fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, managing energy sources, freshwater supplies and agriculture, addressing emerging diseases and other health risks, predicting, adapting to and mitigating climate change are fundamental policy needs across the African continent.
Using EO data, governments can make policies that will provide rural payments and insurance products to farmers at low cost. Similarly, in Nigeria for instance, rising food insecurity has been traced to continued conflicts between herders and farmers. EO data can be used to map croplands, understand farming footprints to help government and private enterprises understand Nigeria’s agriculture economy. By mapping the footprints, governments will understand farming patterns across the country, locate cattle herder settlements and drive a friendly system for farmers and herders to thrive without having to clash over their produce. In Egypt, the country is using satellite data to spot illegal structures and solve housing problems. While early adopters like Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa are making progressions, there is still more to be done for the continent.
The cost of satellites is overwhelming for many African LDCs in the space industry, they can engage in data sharing with neighbouring countries to bridge the gap in data access.
Thus, more African countries need to adopt satellite data, through various means to enhance local policymaking. Sustainable policies in today’s world need strong data, and this can be provided through investment in EO.
The Authority on News, Data and Market Analysis for the African Space Industry.