The Power of Satellites in Humanitarian Work


Lou Del Bello

Global conflicts now often last longer than they did, and they are becoming more complex to understand and address. Some of the worst civil wars, for example in Syria or South Sudan, have now lasted so long that young children born there hardly remember peace. Food shortages can become severe during conflict, and people are much more vulnerable to extreme weather.

But crisis response is getting smarter, and humanitarian workers can now take advantage of planning tools such as satellite imagery.

Images from space can help aid agencies restore food supplies, decide on how best to distribute funds and predict violence.

But emergency response during war isn’t the only time satellite imagery helps. A truly effective humanitarian response must follow the lives of refugees long after the immediate aftermath of a conflict, says Taner Kodanaz, a director at DigitalGlobe.

The firm owns and manages an array of satellites that provide accurate imagery of human activities on the ground. It uses these to cooperate with international institutions such as the UN to analyse migration patterns and identify early warning of conflict.

One example of a complex crisis unfolding in a country impoverished by conflict is the food shortage affecting South Sudan, where civil war and excessive rains have contributed to a major deficit in cereal production and distribution.
Last week, the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) warned that the country’s displaced will soon face a new food emergency. The agency reports that growing unrest since January in northern South Sudan has pushed around 38,000 people into neighbouring Sudan.
According to FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network), an international body that monitors food insecurity, more than 2.3 million displaced people now face an increasingly dangerous lack of food. Market supply chains are disrupted, international humanitarian funds are dwindling and even food aid is now restricted, worsening the food security outlook for the coming months.


In February, South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, attacked and destroyed the UN-run Malakal refugee camp, leaving an estimated 47,000 people without shelter. Now, in the aftermath of the violence, aid workers are calling for help to supply food and sanitation to the displaced.
Being able to capture multiple images of the same area at regular intervals allows analysts to learn how people interact with the available infrastructure and identify early signs of unrest. 

In February, shortly after the second image was recorded, the camp was stormed and burnt to the ground.