Launching into the post-2015 development era: The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)

by Boris Brković

© NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

© NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

At the dawn of the new millennium, all the world’s countries agreed to a development blueprint creating eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Fast-forward 15 years and not all of the MDGs have been met. However, the year 2015, which also marks the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna when the Concert of Europe was drafted as a basis for eternal peace, still has the potential to live up to its anniversary standards. On a global level, and in the context of the United Nations, it is a key year.

The pinnacle of the year will be the unveiling of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September, which are intended to replace the MDGs. Currently 17 goals are on the table, from the eradication of poverty and hunger and gender equality to the fight against climate change and the mitigation of disasters. Among the many processes that should kick-start the new post-2015 development era and complement the proposed SDGs, there are two that deserve special attention: The Third UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction and a post-Kyoto global agreement on climate change (COP21).

Satellite technologies can be a game-changer in ensuring the successful implementation of these two frameworks while pursuing the SDGs related to the environmental goals. Indeed, the space-derived data have proven invaluable in response to disasters. In addition, satellite data offer a unique way in which to observe climate change-related variables. Although the General Assembly, in its resolution 68/90(2013), “emphasized the importance of regional and interregional cooperation in the field of space activities to the achievement of MDGs,” space technology has failed to fully market itself as the useful tool that it truly is.

In Vienna, across the Danube at the UN headquarters, there is an office which maintains peace in outer space and tries to make the space-based technologies available for all countries and organizations worldwide. This entity is known as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). But this may lead one to wonder how exactly these and other relevant actors are contributing to the post-2015 development agenda.

Events such as the Nepal earthquake, which claimed over 8.500 lives, show the great destructive power that lies beneath our feet. Less than a day after the earthquake struck, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite captured images from which an interface map was created assisting evacuation efforts as well as search and rescue teams. Spinoffs from space technology such as NASA’s FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) have been used to send low-powered microwave signals in search of the tiniest movements, such as breathing or a person’s heartbeat, to locate people buried underneath up to 6 meters of concrete.

Because of tragedies such as these, disaster management has been included among the SDGs, and for this reason the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction was adopted on 18 March 2015 at the Third UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Within this framework earth observation plays a central role as it produces valuable information for the whole disaster management cycle, which is comprised of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. The modelling, simulation and visualization that is made possible by satellite technologies are key applications for disaster managers, saving both time and resources.

Although the technology is in place, or rather in space, various issues are present. The most significant policy challenge is securing consistent access to geospatial data from different parts of the world. On the applications side, the limited geospatial data modelling and processing capabilities and the availability of trained human resources have led to an ineffective disaster and emergency management process in many developing countries.


Lena river Delta: This image is part of the ongoing Landsat Earth as Art series. © USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch

UNOOSA, through its UN-SPIDER programme (United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response), is leading the global effort to standardize the process of global data-sharing during disasters under the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. Additionally, the programme is active on the ground through its technical advisory missions in which UN-SPIDER is developing technical and human capacities in developing countries to use all types of space-based information to support the full disaster management cycle. For example, a training programme conducted in Cameroon provides participants with the opportunity to work on high-resolution images of hot-spots in Cameroon, provided by Digital Globe, a leading company in high resolution satellite imagery, and to process them on software donated by Esri, an international supplier of Geographic Information System software.

The second “burning” issue that the international community intends to tackle this year is that of climate change. This will be addressed through a new treaty on climate change which shall replace the existing Kyoto protocol and is encompassed within the SDGs (proposed Goal 15). To be able to provide answers to this complex issue, equally complex technologies are needed, and the view from above is essential. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, “Global observation systems, including those from space, play an important role to gauge the threats posed by climate change.” The information that can be gathered is so essential that UNOOSA has conducted a variety of awareness and training activities to promote the use of space-based technologies and space-derived information for climate knowledge, science, assessment, monitoring and early warning.

The Group on Earth Observation (GEO) has invested 10 years of its work (2005-2015) to create a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). GEOSS is intended to combine all the various data gathered from existing monitoring infrastructure of its 72 Member States and to provide the derived data to end users as a decision-support tool. The observations made possible by this technology can provide us with valuable information on changes in the atmosphere, oceans, land surface and ozone layer as well as their effects on the environment and human health.

The director of UNOOSA, Simonetta Di Pippo, appreciates that “there is a growing recognition by the community worldwide of the contribution of space technology for global sustainable development.” Humankind has come a long way since J. F. Kennedy said that “The nation that will conquer space will be the master on Earth, as well.” Through joint action by the various space actors under the auspices of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and within the post-2015 framework, one can hope that, instead of becoming masters on Earth, humankind will develop along the lines of astronaut Michael Collins’ thinking who said that, “Earth has to become such as it looks like- blue and white, not rich, not poor, just blue and white. Because our planet, which we all own, is connecting us together in a more essential way than the colour of our skin.”

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