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Mekong Region Gets Satellite-data Boost

James Reddick / Khmer Times Share:
A satellite image taken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Photo: NASA

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, USAID and a range of participating organizations have launched a five-year initiative they hope will transform the way in which the government, organizations, universities and citizens use data for research and decision-making.
Called Servir-Mekong, the project will focus on Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Its goal is to use geospatial data to address environmental and planning concerns like climate change, flooding, drought and ever changing land cover. 

Peter Cutter, a science and data specialist with Servir-Mekong, said that the vast majority of data will come from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who already make all of their satellite imagery and other data available to the public. 

“[NASA’s] mandate is that every piece of information they produce is open to use online,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for people to have it in a helpful format and to apply it in a way that’s useful.” 

Mr. Cutter says that ADPC and partner organizations will hold training sessions with government ministries and interested organizations in Cambodia to teach them how to use satellite imagery and other geospatial modeling to inform their decisions. 

In the planning process over the last year, they met with the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Planning and Ministry of Water Resources, as well as a handful of sub-departments, to gauge their interest and needs. 

The most frequent desire they expressed, Cutter said, was improved land cover and land use mapping. Second was a better understanding of water resource management, and of historical flooding patterns. 

Third was what Mr. Cutter calls “multi-risk disaster mapping”– the ability to overlay flood risk maps with a map of landslide prone areas. 

Wide-ranging Benefits

David Ganz, chief of party with ADPC, says that potential beneficiaries range from the farmer trying to decide where to plant his or her crop to the government making decisions about where to build certain infrastructure. 

“We’re trying to make this information more accessible, for example to better inform the decisions of where things are built and how they are built,” he said. 

The Lower Mekong is the third area of focus for NASA and USAID’s geospatial program. The program was launched in East Africa in 2008 and in the Himalayan region in 2010. 

As an example of the initiative’s potential practical use, Mr. Ganz cited one case in East Africa where, through weather mapping software, farmers in rural areas are notified before frost arrives. With an alert, they can save their crop. In another case in Bangladesh, the combination of historical flooding maps, better use of weather reports and on-the-ground sirens allowed the government to develop a better early warning flood notification system. 

“This kind of information doesn’t just help to save lives,” Mr. Ganz said. “It also helps people to make a living.” 

Potential uses

The prevalence of satellite imagery has been a boon to environmental groups who now, through programs like Google Earth, have access to pictures of remote areas like the Amazon rainforest. One can watch deforestation in action through NASA imagery. 

Because of often conflicting interests between the government and environmental groups, the availability of these mapping tools for local NGOs has the potential to ruffle feathers. 

Mr. Cutter is well aware of the delicateness of certain environmental and political issues throughout the region, such as deforestation in Cambodia. 

“It’s something that we treat with a lot of care,” Mr. Cutter said. “To offer the broadest value to the broadest number of people in a sustainable way we try to focus on information provision rather than interpretation.” 

He says that the goal is not to provide published reports to ministries and organizations, but to give each institution the ability to manipulate and analyze the data themselves.

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