Space Technology, GIS and Disaster Management in Afghanistan

Disaster management is a typically multi-disciplinary endeavour, requiring many types of data with spatial and temporal attributes that should be made available to key players in the right format for decision-making.  The volume of information needed for natural disasters far exceeds the capacity to deal with them manually. Disaster management cut across boundaries including organizational, political, geographic, professional, topical, and sociological.

Space technologies have proved to contribute unique and significant solutions in disaster management: disaster mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster relief and also disaster rehabilitation. Space technology based solutions have become an integral part of disaster management activities in many developed and some developing countries.  The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has been implementing a Space Technology and Disaster Management Program to support developing countries in incorporating space-based solutions in disaster management activities.

In the recent UN/Islamic Republic of Iran Regional Workshop on the use of space technology for Environmental Security, Disaster Rehabilitation and Sustainable Development, it was concluded that in order for developing countries to increasingly use space technology-based solutions there is need for increased awareness, build national capacity, improve data availability and access, develop and adhere to data standards, encourage networking amongst stakeholders and developing solutions based on user requirements.

We cannot eliminate natural disasters, but we can minimize the sufferings through proper awareness of the likely disasters and its impact by developing a suitable warning system, disaster preparedness and management of disasters through the use of Space technologies. Information derived from GIS and Remote Sensed satellite imagery plays an important role in disaster management and crisis prevention. Their effective application depends not solely on technical specifications, but is influenced by factors such as data collection, processing and distribution, capacity building, institutional development and information sharing. Earth Observation Satellites (EOS) could be used to view the same area over long periods of time and as a result, make it possible to monitor environmental change, the human impact and natural processes. This would facilitate scientists and planners in creating models that would simulate trends observed in the past, present and also assist with projections for the future.

EOS could be used in emergency situations where the ground resources are often not available. EOS can provide data rapidly when there are earthquakes, landslides, floods and other natural disasters that often prevent assessment by ground or aerial services. EOS provides accurate, global coverage and operability no matter what the weather or conditions are on the ground. They can also be used for a large number of activities during their lifetime.

Use of satellite imagery by humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan in preparation for and response to natural and manmade disasters has been very limited. The humanitarian community generally assumes that the cost of satellite imagery is not cheap.  With limited budgets available for purchasing satellite data, they tend to opt for less expensive solutions such as an interagency survey teams to assess damages.  The rugged and mountainous nature of the country and the lack of roads in most parts of the country, survey teams are most often hampered, leading to delays in delivery of information from the field to the decision makers.

As a result of the over two decades of war in Afghanistan, The Universities currently lack the expertise to acquire, process, analyze, and disseminate earth observation satellite data.  None of the Academic Institutions currently possess a functional Department that deals with Remote Sensing, nor a GIS. FAO (under the Agromet project) and FEWS NET are both working together extensively on the use of satellite imagery on famine early warming, environmental monitoring, crop forecasting, early warning, drought, locust control and other hazards.  WFP, UNHCR, WHO, UNOPS, UNDP, UNICEF, & UN HABITATA are not using satellite imagery as they do in other countries. Like the UN Agencies, there are no NGOs in the country using space technology in disaster management.

AIMS contribution to natural disaster management in Afghanistan can be through human resource development, capacity building, institutional strengthening, advisory services, provision of data and information products, database development and management, software and technologies related to geoinformation science and earth observation.  AIMS is working very closely with members of the National Commission for Emergency and Disaster Management, and the Disaster Management Planning Team.

Satellite imagery is very expensive and not affordable by most developing nations without their own space programs.  In the event of a natural or man-made disaster, space technology data should be readily available, for nations like Afghanistan, which do not have or cannot afford their own space programs.   Since November 2000 the ‘Charter On Cooperation To Achieve The Coordinated Use Of Space Facilities In The Event Of Natural Or Technological Disasters’ ( was launched by several space agencies. The International Charter aims at providing a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disasters through authorized users. 

AIMS has established contacts with the Charter through the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, which is a Cooperating Body to the Charter.  Following the recent earthquake of 6 April 2004 in Badakhshan, AIMS requested satellite imagery from The Charter, to help in mapping the extent and impact of the earthquake.  In the event of any major disaster in Afghanistan, AIMS will trigger The Charter through UNDP. 

The Government of Afghanistan through the Executive Secretary of National Commission for Emergency and Disaster Management, any of the UN agencies or an NGO can also trigger the request for free delivery of satellite data or the derived products (if the necessary satellite image processing skills is lack) from The International Charter through UNDP.