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At the United Nations’ UNISPACE III conference in Vienna in July 1999, CNES and ESA advocated the idea of a charter through which members would commit to provide free access to their satellite data to countries hit by major man-made or natural disasters. Thus was born the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The two founding members were quickly joined by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which signed up in October 2000, and the charter has since seen its ranks swell with space agencies and international organizations from around the world. It is a unique coalition transcending the usual political and economic divides, open to space agencies and national or international space system operators. Civil defence and security agencies as well as rescue organizations in signatory nations are also naturally in line to become authorized users of the charter’s services.
In order to provide timely assistance from emergency response teams to affected populations, the charter’s members are on permanent watch. After authenticating and validating each request to activate it, the charter tasks member agencies’ satellites to get value-added maps to teams in the field that they can use easily without any need for special expertise in interpreting satellite imagery.
This initiative was launched independently of the usual national or international political institutions, while still retaining ties with them. It aims to prevent loss of life, maintain vigilance and provide rapid assistance in the spirit of humanitarian aid. As such, the charter is a unique and remarkable example of an effective alliance between knowledge and action, and a shared commitment to action in response to special circumstances.
Since the charter came into effect in November 2000, it has been activated hundreds of times around the world, and half of these cases have been in response to inland or coastal flooding. The public are often surprised to learn these numbers, by the ability of space organizations to share costly and sensitive resources and by the sheer amount of major disasters hitting human populations every year. No continent has been spared, and many countries have already requested the charter’s assistance in the past.