October 13, 2015

International Charter on Space and Major Disasters

The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters brings space technology to the aid of emergency relief teams in the field. Initiated by CNES and ESA in 1999, the charter today has 15 member space agencies.

In Vienna, in July 1999, the idea arose of a charter binding signatories to offer satellite data in their possession free of charge to countries impacted by major disasters, be these of natural or man-made origin. This led to the crea­tion of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. Its two founders, CNES and the European Space Agency (ESA) were joined by 13 bodies from different countries: India and China, the United Kingdom and the United States, Japan and South Korea, Brazil and Germany, etc. An amazing coalition overcoming the usual political and economic divides. Potential members of the Charter were space agencies and the national or international operators of space systems; Also, civil protection, rescue, defence and security organisations of the States party to the Charter became de facto authorised users. To provide aid to crisis-hit populations and rescue teams deployed in affected areas as quickly as possible, Charter members conduct permanent surveillance: having verified the relevance and genuine nature of a request, the goal is to provide images to the persons and services requiring them as swiftly as possible and to schedule specific images.

Because the initiative was launched independently of the usual national and international political institutions, although it is not totally separate from them, and because its aims are prevention, alert and rapid intervention in the spirit of humanitarian aid, the Charter is a unique and remarkable example of an effective alliance between knowledge and action, that rises to the occasion with good will and effective, joint endeavour. Following its entry into effect in February 2002, the Charter has been activated on hundreds of occasions, half of these being cases of flooding and submersion of coastal zones. The public is amazed by so many activations, surprised by the actual capability of these space organisations to pool sensi­tive and costly resources, and by the number of “major catastrophes” that strike human populations. No conti­nent is being spared and many countries have requested assistance from the Charter. To cite just some examples, the first call was a Landslide in Slovenia on November 27th 2000.  the second, on January 15th 2001 , came from El Salvador for an earthquake, and the third, the same month for an Oil Spill in Ecuador, followed an earthquake in Afghanistan. The Tsunami on 26 December 2004, the Fukushima catastrophe of 11 March 2011 and the Nepal earthquake on 25 April 2015 all resulted in the Charter being activated.

Satellite technology is not only useful in an emergency, when governmental services and NGOs are mobilised to help populations to return to satisfactory living condi­tions as soon as possible. They can also be used to prevent disaster, issue alerts and organise the occupation of land, taking into account potential and actual threats.