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Remote sensing and technology transfer in developing countries

H.M. Hassan and Wayne Luscombe

Natural disasters are more devastating in developing countries than in developed countries as developed countries are better prepared to cope with disasters through well-established surveillance, early warning, and preparedness programs. Information technologies designed to predict, monitor, and assess disasters are generally unavailable and poorly understood in developing countries. Improving disaster information management in developing countries is a technology transfer problem, but issues of intellectual property rights limit disaster information management applications in those countries. The use of remote sensing information in disaster management in developed countries has been limited and mostly exotic. Remote sensing is considered high technology, and there is a widespread belief that it cannot be transferred to developing countries - whether for disaster management or broader uses such as natural resource and environmental management. Developing countries must be helped to have better access to remote sensing technology so they can deal with disasters more effectively.

Disasters can never be eliminated, but modern technologies give us access to detailed information that can be used to minimize damage. Most disasters must be dealt with in a matter of days and sometimes hours. Disasters are by nature unpredictable, uncontrollable, difficult to assess, and disturbing. Decisions must be made in a state of shock and uncertainty, when the information needed for rational judgments is imprecise and often nonexistent. Remote sensing is especially helpful in developing countries in which baseline information is unavailable and communication systems are weak. Remote sensing can play an indispensable role in disaster warning, monitoring, and damage assessment, especially in relation to droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and locust outbreaks.

Floods. Satellite images made it easy to compare the extent of inundation to normal preflood conditions during the Mississippi River Flood of 1973 (Deutsch and others 1973). The synoptic (three-dimension) coverage of satellite remote sensing provides a bird’s-eye view of the whole flood area at uniform scale. The satellite’s frequent revisits to flood-prone areas allows a comparison of flood conditions over time at reasonable cost. Remote sensing allows quick delineation of inundated areas, allows rapid calculation of flood damage to agricultural and urban lands (combined with other data), and facilitates planning for flood control and disaster preparedness programs. The flood forecasting and early warning program in Bangladesh was one attempt to use different remote sensing and ground survey data to establish a dependable early flood warning system. With significant recent improvements in spatial, spectral, and temporal resolution of satellite remote sensing, flood monitoring and forecasting are now more achievable. State-of-the-art disaster management technologies have been used in a few developing countries, but such applications were situation-specific and implemented mostly by outside agencies. There was little, if any, interaction with local people and no real know-how was transferred.

Earthquakes. Satellite remote sensing is of limited use in the assessment of earthquake damage to buildings, structures, transportation, and communication networks because of the relatively coarse resolution of current commercially available satellite images. However, the synoptic view provided by satellites has been helpful in studying earthquake-prone areas worldwide. It is possible to analyze the surface signatures of deep-seated structures that appear on satellite images as distinctive lineament patterns. Using satellite data, seismologists are able to pinpoint areas of dangerous deformation on the earth’s surface - information that is useful in forecasting seismic activity. Active earthquake zones can be roughly located and risk maps produced by reviewing plate tectonic motions and past seismic activity and geologically interpreting remote sensing data. It is also possible to assess landslide-susceptible areas by analyzing spectral patterns on satellite imagery and studying maps of soil and water resources.

Earthquakes are not preventable, but it is possible at least to reduce the damage from them. At least twice in China the prediction of earthquakes saved many people’s lives (Gunner and others 1984). Advanced Japanese, Soviet, and U.S. research in earthquake prediction is promising, and applications of satellite images for earthquake damage assessment have been reported (Simonett 1978, Carter and Easton 1973). Time is the most important factor after an earthquake disaster. If less time is spent gathering information on which to base decisions, early search, relief, and restoration measures may save lives and property.

Volcanic eruption. Timely satellite images allow rapid assessment of the damage caused by volcanic eruptions. Areas covered by lava, mud-flows, and volcanic ash are easily detectable against satellite images of undisturbed soil. Thermal and infrared channels on satellite and aircraft sensors have been used to study the temperature differential between lava flows and ash and their colder surroundings. Measuring the tilt of a volcano before eruption allows an early warning if coupled with other indicators such as the geochemistry of emitted gases, the heat flow from the volcano, and measures of microseismic activity.

Tropical cyclones. Because of their violent nature, their duration, and the extensive area they can affect, tropical cyclones can be among the most devastating of disasters. They develop over the open sea and may continue to have destructive power for two weeks or more. Cyclone disasters result from violent winds, excessive rainfall, and rising seas. If a tropical cyclone moves inland or along a coastline it can bring death and damage to extensive areas, involving many countries. Scientists understand the nature of tropical cyclones relatively well, thanks partially to radar, weather satellites, and computer modeling. It is not possible to prevent tropical cyclones, but radar, satellites, and radios allow their course to be tracked and warnings to be issued in reasonable time. Cyclone-prone areas can be studied and preparedness programs developed for those areas.

Drought. Drought is a long-term creeping disaster that is usually not limited to one country but crosses national boundaries to cover regional ecosystems. Satellite remote sensing has been extensively used in the prediction, surveillance, and assessment of drought and drought damage. Early warning systems with remote sensing components for drought monitoring have been established in many drought-prone areas worldwide. Low-resolution satellite data from weather satellites have been useful in making rough but quick predictions and assessments of drought in Africa’s Sahelian zone (Heilkema and others 1986). High-resolution satellite and aerial data have been used to zoom in on specific areas in a drought zone for detailed study and analysis.

Agriculture and forestry disasters. Many calamities occur because of stress on forests and crops from disease, insect infestations, fires, and the like. Changes in spectral reflection of remotely sensed images of crops, forests, and rangeland indicate irregularities in the degree of plant vigor. This clearly shows in the microwave and infrared bands. Changes in spectral responses can be detected long before images are visible to the naked eye. Time-lapse images are useful in early warning and damage assessment programs. D.E. Pedgley’s early work using satellite images in the surveillance of locust breeding sites in Saudi Arabia was followed by FAO’s successful work using NOAA satellite data in the early detection of locust breeding habitats in North Africa (Heilkema and others 1986).

Problems of technology transfer

Some problems hinder the transfer of remote sensing technologies to developing countries for disaster management:

· Remote sensing is considered high technology and because of trade issues involving intellectual property rights often cannot be transferred to developing countries.

· Few developing countries have the technical capabilities to absorb the transfer of such complex technology.

· Policymakers and managers find it difficult if not impossible to devote limited human and financial resources to such high-technology endeavors.

· In many developing countries, long-term planning is practiced only on paper. Soon after long- or medium-term plans are prepared and approved they are ignored and begin gathering dust on shelves. Reactive, piecemeal, short-term programs are the norm, not the exception.

· The “supply-driven” approaches promoted by technologists and technology vendors have been counterproductive in influencing policy-makers and planners to accept and promote long-term disaster information management programs, because these high-technology disaster information management programs have not been integrated with indigenous policy planning.

· Remotely sensed data have been only intermittently available in developing countries, because of the high cost of data and security measures imposed by some countries. This makes the use of such information for long-term planning difficult.

There is an inconsistency between the level of technological development that can be used in disaster management, and the level developing countries can and do actually use. Disaster information technologies transferred to developing countries after a disaster are often both unfocused and oversophisticated. Most of the disaster information technologies deployed in developing countries are technologies borrowed from the military. Others are makeshift technologies quickly put together for that particular situation.

What must be done

The 1972 Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment states that “environmental deficiencies generated by the conditions of underdevelopment and natural disasters pose grave problems and can best be remedied by accelerated development through the transfer of financial and technological assistance as a supplement to the domestic efforts of the developing countries” (OAS 1988). Until recently, disaster assistance programs have traditionally provided relief immediately after a disaster. Few disaster assistance efforts have included rehabilitation, and no comprehensive systems of disaster preparedness have been implemented in developing countries.

In the last two decades, with recognition of the repetitive patterns of many natural disasters, increased attention has been paid to predisaster measures, especially early warning systems and preparedness planning. The Organization of American States (OAS 1988) recommends making natural hazard assessment and mitigation an integral part of development planning. Disaster information should be part of ongoing natural resource information management programs in developing countries.

Accurate data and effective communication are basic needs in normal development planning. When and where disaster strikes, they are even more important. Disaster information should be thought of as a layer of natural resource information management with critical time requirements. Although there may be certain specifications for disaster information, developing this information as part of an overall information management program for development planning will guarantee its sustainability and the effectiveness of technology transfer. It will also help establish the long-term baseline information that is crucial in disaster studies. Resources available to national, subregional, and regional organizations in the fields of remote sensing, geographical information systems (GIS), and natural resource information management should be used to develop such a system. Scientists and technicians in natural resource centers should be the targets for proposed technology transfers. Properly trained, they can work with local personnel to develop sustainable systems for monitoring, forecasting, and managing disasters and issuing early warnings.

Remote sensing technology, geographical information systems, and methods of information dissemination may all need to be transferred. Training should be provided in acquisition and storage of remotely sensed data, in planning and implementing aerial surveys, in processing and analyzing the data visually and digitally, and in disseminating information.

“Do not give me a fish,” says the old Chinese proverb, “but teach me how to fish.” Simply supplying a country with machinery does not constitute technology transfer. The “mastery of technology cannot be bought; it must be learned” (World Bank 1988c). One does not so much transfer technology as transplant it, and one must recognize the complexity of integrating a technological approach in a new setting.