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Use of earth observation satellites to improve effectiveness of humanitarian operations

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Authors: Rémi Froment, supervised by Boris van Loenhout, Sophie Vanwambeke and in collaboration with Debarati Guha-Sapir.

1. Introduction

Throughout human history, technological innovations have changed the way humans view and understand the world. Satellite-based earth observation is one such innovations that radically changed how we monitor the state of the Earth. We are now for example capable of monitoring the melting of glaciers in near real-time (Kaab et al. 2018). Nowadays, earth observation is an essential source of information for a large variety of societal applications such as monitoring disasters, health, energy, climate, agriculture, ecosystems, biodiversity, water and weather (Dowman and Reuter 2017).

The humanitarian sector did not miss this opportunity and adopted earth observation to face its own challenges. Every year, humanitarian actors respond to disasters affecting millions of people and causing thousands of deaths. In 2019 alone, 396 natural disasters were recorded around the world, resulting in 11,755 fatalities, 95 million people affected and 103 billion US$ in economic losses (CRED 2020). Humanitarian actors use satellite images not only to monitor disasters emerging from natural hazards but also to assess human rights abuse and conflict. Earth observation satellites are used in this context to monitor the presence of mass graves or the destruction of buildings, for example.

The field of earth observation is in constant evolution and recent advances in data processing offer new sources of information, as well as new applications (Popkin 2018b). This report focuses specifically on space-based earth observation systems. It presents a critical review on the current use of earth observation data in the humanitarian sector based on the current scientific and grey literature.

The second section, “Methods”, describes the methodology applied to gather the scientific and grey literature used as a source of information, as well as the analysis to process this information. The third section of this report, “History”, is a brief summary of the birth, evolution and adoption of the earth observation technology by the humanitarian community. The fourth section summarises the most common applications of satellite images and products derived from them, as used by humanitarian actors. The fifth section, “Current challenges and trends” is dedicated to compile the current challenges that earth observation technology faces and the trends that may influence the future of this field of application.