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European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Space: a tool for Crisis Prevention and Management
4th Conference on EU Space Policy "A European Space Policy for Citizens and Society"
Brussels, 8 November 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me first thank the European Parliament Sky and Space Intergroup and Business Bridge Europe, as well as all the other contributors for organising this relevant and timely conference. The evolution in the space world is rapid and complicated for those of us who are not experts in the field. But both experts and non-experts alike enjoy the tremendous benefits of the services and products emerging from this industry. This applies to the users in the area of my responsibility, humanitarian aid and crisis response.
On 21st of October, we had the pleasure of seeing the successful launch of the first Galileo satellites, a major event for the European space industry. These two satellites were named after children, nine-year-old Natalia, from my own country, Bulgaria and eleven-year-old Thijs from Belgium. What better way to gather support for this industry than appeal to the European citizens and demonstrate the added value of what many of you do? At these difficult economic times for Europe it is this service to our citizens that I want to emphasise in talking about space applications in my work.
EU crisis management relies on a number of building blocks which create a comprehensive, holistic and up-to-date machinery to deal with all types of crises. I represent only part of this wider chain, and work closely with all those concerned: High Representative/Vice President Catherine Ashton and the External Action Service for crises in third countries and coordination with the military; with Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (Home affairs) for events such as terrorist or cyber attacks inside the EU; with Commissioner Andris Piebalgs (Development) in linking relief, rehabilitation and development especially in protracted crises; but of course also others such as Commissioners Janez Potočnik (Environment) and Connie Hedegaard (Climate Change) - since environmental hazards and in particular climate change are very important to understand and factor in risk management.
As part of the EU crisis management chain I represent a very large user community of space-related tools in disaster response. Workers in humanitarian aid all over the world; first and second-line responders in Europe and civil protection workers sent on missions to disaster-stricken countries are all either current or potential future users of space-related communication, navigation and mapping technologies and products.
1) Communication: Satellite communication infrastructure is essential in crisis areas and crisis times, especially when ground infrastructures are damaged or destroyed. This is why we work with partners such as Telecoms without Borders to re-establish links after disasters. We still need to further develop the systematic inclusion of contributions of porta-cabins and communication kits which have to be readily available for rapid deployment. I have recently visited a fantastic operational programme, ''Emergency.lu'' in Luxembourg, which aims to achieve precisely this objective.
We should also make sure that all those engaged in emergency response are able to communicate with each other. This implies that there is sufficient radio spectrum during emergencies. I understand what a challenge it is to secure special communication frequencies and bandwidth, including satellite ones. This needs to be further worked on. But allocation is not enough. Standardisation and smart usage are equally important. In emergencies first responders, be it humanitarian aid workers or civil protection professionals, have to get used to talking to each other on the same frequencies. Unfortunately, I have seen examples where this was not the case and this has negatively affected our rescue efforts.
All our own teams are always equipped with the latest in satellite communication, 3D and satellite phones and terminals as well as navigation tools and cameras, allowing them to deploy swiftly to any place in the planet.
2) Navigation tools (like the GPS) or new tools developed to use the future Galileo system are essential to manage and track our staff especially in difficult access or hostile environments. I have had the chance to experience the use of such equipment in several tough places, including most recently in Somalia.
3) Mapping: The growing number of high and very high resolution earth observation satellite sensors means we have better capabilities today for monitoring disaster hotspots and for assessing the extent and severity of disaster-related damage than ever before.
Over the last years satellite image-based maps from either the GMES pre-operational Emergency Response Service (SAFER) or from UNOSAT are used in the majority of cases in our present emergency response centre, the MIC, and in the field in our humanitarian and crisis response operations both inside and outside the EU. In four years, the Civil Protection Mechanism has been activated 93 times, of which 65 were outside the EU.
In our work we address the entire "disaster cycle" from prevention and preparedness, to the immediate response, to recovery and rehabilitation, and space technology plays a role at every step. Let me illustrate this by giving some examples of our work where space-related applications and technology have proven to be critically important.
First, in our prevention and preparedness efforts we support building resilience to handle disasters both inside Europe and in third countries. This includes supporting availability of disaster and impact data, risk assessments, public awareness raising, mainstreaming disaster prevention into other policy areas, such as land-use planning. In our humanitarian efforts we aim to reach the most vulnerable populations in areas of high risks.
Satellite images taken at intervals and illustrated on reference maps greatly facilitate this work. We aim to have maps of "hotspots" in the world, often in countries where map information is missing or rudimentary. EU GMES satellite imaging and mapping capabilities helps to fill information gaps.
Second, our work in the response phase is largely about speed. Speed translates into saving lives. The more service providers understand this and deliver near-real-time information, the better chances we have of saving lives when hours and days count. We contribute, through civil protection in particular, also to saving property, the environment and cultural heritage.
This is valid for every other recent disaster you have heard of, be it the floods in Poland, the Haiti earthquake or the industrial mud-spill in Hungary in 2010 or the earthquake and tsunami in Japan this March.
Finally, with respect to reconstruction efforts, where our development colleagues take the lead, we assist them by making sure that information is gathered and lessons are learned for building back better.
As you see so far, in our experience using space technology is essential. Let me share some thoughts on the potential it holds for our work in the future.
First of all we need to build more bridges between the users and the scientific community. We, as users, need easy to access, and yet relevant, reliable and robust tools, that integrate seamlessly in our operational work. For us simplicity in use is not a luxury - it is a necessity when we strive to shorten our response time, to save more lives and allow less damage.
Second, in our work we are concerned about the potential low probability, high impact disasters, such as an earthquake combined with a tsunami in the Mediterranean, or space weather events like a solar storm with the potential to destroy critical infrastructure in space, but also on earth. I see a huge potential in this area for the industry to help us in anticipating and, if they ever occur, responding to such disasters.
Third, in the event of collapse of major communication infrastructure, be it as a result of natural disaster or a major terrorist attacks, we need reliable back-up arrangements. I can tell you an anecdote. In February last year, when an earthquake rating a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter Scale devastated the Chilean region of Maule, in the minutes that followed the quake, the communication system simply collapsed. The GSM network was completely out of order almost immediately and it was impossible to make telephone calls for several hours after the quake. However only 15 minutes after the disaster, its amateur radio operators (or “hams”) provided the first information from the ground: information about locating missing persons, condition of roads and support for the emergency administration. Is satellite communication a robust and reliable alternative in such situations and what can be done so it is?
Finally, as some of you might be aware, my Directorate General is transforming the MIC and the Humanitarian Aid crisis room into an Emergency Response Centre staffed 24 hours a day 365 days of the year. This initiative is as a follow-up to the request from Member States and the European Parliament in our Communication adopted by the European Council in November 2010. The ERC will, in order to support its expanded tasks, widen its analytical capacity. Moreover we are working on enhancing its role in the coordination of the emergency mapping services.
Our centre should above all be a high utility one. We live in a difficult time and cost-effectiveness is key for us. Let me thus finish with an invitation to the industry to work with us on making the best use of our potential and develop application we can use in the future.
I look forward to our discussion.