Satellite mapping tools prove invaluable to Médecins Sans Frontières

Users Symposium
Users Symposium23-24 April
29 May 2002

The Brussels section of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the aid organisation active in more than 80 countries, is at the forefront of international aid groups using satellite imagery to help deliver emergency medical assistance where, and when, it is needed.

“We are convinced that satellite data can help us and other voluntary organisations,” said Koen Van de Cauter, MSF’s project manager at the organisation’s office in Belgium.

In 1996, MSF used Earth observation data to assess the number of Somali refugees needing assistance at a camp in Kenya.

“We were unable to obtain an official count of the numbers, but from the satellite images we could see the layout of the camp and its buildings,” Van de Cauter said. “This enabled us to made a good guess as to the number of people in need of our help.”

MSF’s Brussels section participates in a project funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop satellite imagery as mapping tools useful in dealing with humanitarian disasters. Called HUMAN, it’s one of the initiatives underway at ESA’s Data User Programme (DUP) to foster applications using space-based data products.

For MSF, an essential ingredient of the programme is to develop maps that can be understood by the layperson. As a voluntary organisation, MSF cannot employ specialists to process satellite data and must rely on industry partners who can provide the required technical services.

Van de Cauter explained at a recent ESA Users Symposium how its partnership with industry and its involvement with the HUMAN programme recently came together in offering medical services at refugee camps in Afghanistan:

Maps of the Almar/Qaisar Districts
Map of the Almar/Qaysar Districts

“In Afghanistan, through the DUP pilot project, the Belgian company KEYOBS supplied us with accurate satellite maps of the Almar/Qaysar Districts showing the terrain and the situation of roads, towns and villages. These maps helped us choose the best routes for displaced people, to estimate the amount of time it would take to reach them, and to plan emergency evacuation routes for our staff.”

Van de Cauter also called on donor countries and organisations to consider providing satellite data as part of international aid packages.

A Médecins Sans Frontières aid center in Afghanistan
A Médecins Sans Frontières aid center in Afghanistan

“Voluntary organizations and many developing countries do not have the funds to pay for the Earth observation satellite data that could prove so useful for them both in disaster management and in safeguarding the environment,” the MSF official said. “Maybe donor countries or organisations could provide this data as part of their assistance package.”

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