Earth Observation (EO) products and services – which use orbiting, remote sensing satellite technology to monitor and map the environment – have huge potential for business and social use in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). And steps are underway to address the bottlenecks holding back use of this technology, through a major European Commission project known as the Group on Earth Observation Network for Capacity Building (GEONetCaB). This is according to remote sensing specialist Andiswa Mlisa, a director of Cape Town earth sciences consultancy Umvoto Africa. Various partners from all over the world are working on the GEONetCaB project, with Umvoto Africa and the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) as Southern Africa partners. Mlisa recently presented a paper on EO at the 12th Waternet symposium. She also addressed the 21st United Nations/International Astronautical Federation workshop on Space for Human and Environmental Security in Cape Town late last year.
EO is often used in so-called societal benefit areas. Mlisa says: “There is an urgent need for raising awareness of the value-add of EO in the organisational processes, in line with the identified societal benefit areas – agriculture, biodiversity, climate, disaster, ecosystems, energy, health, water and weather.” The barriers to using EO products and services (as found by the project in SADC) are largely due to limited individual (human capital), infrastructure and institutional capacity, she says. “Despite these barriers, the EO market in the SADC region is as varied as it is growing,” says Mlisa. “In many instances, applications of EO are still in the early development stage, while in some countries (like South Africa) many products and services have reached maturity and integration in the business process of both public and private sector organisations.”
There is a ‘fair number’ of providers of airborne technologies and services, predominantly in the private sector. The traditional meteorological agencies maintain long-established ground observing networks to provide in-situ data, while incorporating space-based systems into their forecasting models. With the SADC home to some of the world’s greatest mineral deposits, some EO capacity has been developed to support exploration missions. The proliferation of wireless networks has also enabled the emergence of regional telecommunications giants, offering far greater penetration than traditional wired networks. Despite this, the cost of internet connections remains a barrier for uptake, leading to less usage of popular applications such as Google Earth.
GEONetCaB is examining capacity building to enable more access to and use of EO products. The project has a special focus on developing countries – including the SADC region. The project aims to use demonstration projects (success stories) to showcase the various applications of EO and its societal benefits. For example, EO has been used to identify and monitor groundwater-dependent ecosystems In the Gateway wellfield in Hermanus, Western Cape. This wellfield yields 1.6 million cubic metres of high quality water annually. Umvoto Africa sourced the high-yielding wellfield and then, with sub-contractors, implemented a ground-breaking modelling, monitoring and management system, including ecological monitoring using EO.
Another best practice example is the SA government’s SPOT 5 multi-user licence, which enabled free access to high-resolution satellite imagery for government departments, non-profit organisations and research / academic institutions in the country.