Geovision - geospatial information consultancy

'How Geospatial Information can aid the achievment of the MDG's'

Talk given to the International Development Secretary March 2008

by Paul Shaw, GeoVision


The first thing I’d like to say is, simply, ‘Water is Life’. Without water for drinking and irrigation how can it be possible to meet the MDG’s? Water is a fundamental economic and social resource and access to a safe and affordable water supply a basic requirement for human development. A struggle for food and water mean a focus on survival and therefore little chance of a decent education for children. That’s why I believe a sustainable water supply is an essential development priority.

If I may quote from last month’s ‘Developments’ magazine from DFID.‘ We are not on course to meet the MDG’s by 2015. Not even close....only a third of countries are on track to halve the number who have no safe drinking water.’

In Malawi the population relies on rain-fed techniques for the growth of its staple diet, maize. A process increasingly risky in these days of climate change uncertainty. Few crops are grown out of the wet season so there is enormous reliance on steady rainfall throughout this time. Unless this system changes food shortage in Malawi is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The country must move into more nutritional crops, grown year round, fed by a sustainable water supply. The Malawi Government realises the importance of water to economic development and in 2006 placed agriculture and water at the top of its economic development agenda....all the more astonishing therefore that the Scottish Government’s International Development Fund deprioritised water as a major support area of health shortly afterwards.

The second thing I’d like to say is that Africa is an Information Desert. By that I mean there is a shortage of reliable, up-to-date information which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out proper assessment for development. For instance, the Malawi government has a commitment to provide a water point within 500 metres for every 250 people. How can you measure the success of that if you don’t know where the water points are, or where the houses are, or how many live in each house, or general information about the water point, like is it working? It doesn’t help having maps 40 years old – and since the 60’s the population has increased by 9 million.

So, the question I ask is how can we begin to water the information desert? I believe the answer lies with modern geospatial collection and management technologies. Very High Resolution Satellites cover every part of the globe every day. The imagery is so detailed individual houses, trees, crops, water points – in fact anything down to 60cm in size – can be identified - and if you overlap images a 3 dimensional model can be created. I’d like to offer an example of their potential use in Southern Malawi. The Mulanje Massif is a an important source of rain water - up to 3m in a year falls there. Its part of a protected area and any development must be sensitive to the environment. Access is difficult and modern, reliable information scarce.

In this scenario satellite imagery would be collected and used to create a 3 dimensional model, from which important areas of bio-diversity like the Mulanje cedar, water points, water flow monitoring stations and houses would be identified and layered with available government and NGO data. An engineering design software would facilitate hydrological modelling and calculation of potential water containment positions, not just on the massif itself but throughout outlying areas wherever gravity-fed water could be piped, Including Blantyre. The software could also automatically generate sections to help pipe route selection and assessment of the potential for micro-hydro-electricity to bring power to the local communities. The imagery would be made freely available to locally based NGO’s to which they could add their own data. Oxfam in Mulanje for instance could use it to plot the lines of the gravity-fed pipes during their on-going pipe rehabilitation exercise. Other NGO’s could add their own unique geospatial data. The benefit of having a common imagery dataset is that all the disparate data would fit into one geospatial information system. A process would be set up so that periodically the data could be collated into a central database.

To conclude, the primary aim of the MDG’s must be eradication of extreme poverty and hunger and provision of sustainable water supplies are vital to achieving this. The world’s acquifers are being polluted with chemicals and other diffuse pollutants. Rain water harvesting will soon become the key adaption requirement in the near future for mankind. Very high resolution satellite imagery provides a route for governments to prepare for this.

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