OpEd: Katrina and the Disasters Chapter: A Turning Point

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Katrina is an historical turning point for the United States, Earth observations and the world.

For the United States, it has experienced the kind of environmental disaster that much of the world already knows too well. The aftermath of Katrina demands that the United States re-evaluate its disaster response and environmental policies.

For Earth observations and the world, Katrina has raised decades-long attempts to integrate Earth observation operations on a global scale to a whole new, historic level.

Earth observations history was made when, for the first time, the United States activated theCharter on Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space in the Event of Natural or Technological Disasters, also referred to as the Disasters Charter. Its purpose is to provide a unified space data acquisition and delivery system to those affected by natural or human-made disasters. It was declared operational in 2000 and currently the space or weather agencies of Argentina, Canada, Europe, France, India, Japan and the United States are members.

Each member has committed resources to support the charter. It allows the civil protection authority of participating members to call a single number and request mobilization of space and related ground resources to obtain data and information for a disaster. The charter is substantially moving the world closer to more coordinated, systematic monitoring of the Earth.

The idea behind the charter is not new. The value of consistent, world-wide monitoring was recognized as far back as the 1970s and 1980s when the science and space communities first envisioned a coordinated, integrated, long-term, global system of satellites and sensor-carrying platforms to observe the Earth as a whole. Such a system could routinely acquire data that could be changed into information used to address environmental and global habitability issues.

The old idea obtained a new lease on life in the 1999 Vienna Declaration produced by the U.N. conference UNISPACE III. In it, the international community once again recommended the development of a comprehensive worldwide environmental monitoring strategy.

This recommendation catalyzed the charter. In tandem, the heads of state of the Group of Eight industrialized nations agreed in 2003 on an action plan designed to care for the environment while growing national economies. Earth observation summits were held in the United States in 2003, in Tokyo in 2004, and in Brussels, Belgium, in 2005. Their purpose was to promote and adopt a 10-year implementation plan to develop one or more comprehensive, coordinated and sustained Earth observation systems.

As with many ideas that require the leadership of nation-states , there are competing models of how the system, or systems, ought to develop. Three overlapping models are emerging: the initially U.S.-led Group on Earth Observations (GEO); the European-led Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES); and the work of the U.N. Space Technology Disaster Management (STDM) program, whose efforts also stem directly from the 1999 Vienna Declaration. For now, it has been accepted that GMES is the European contribution to GEO, which transitioned from an ad hoc to a permanent body this year and adopted an implementation plan.

The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, adopted a resolution that a study should be conducted by an ad hoc group of experts on the possibility of creating an international space coordination entity to support disaster management. All three groups acknowledge the importance of, and the intent to build upon, the Disasters Charter.

The details of these efforts are complex and far-reaching. There is a lot to be worked out: how they will be funded and by whom; what data policies ought to prevail; appropriate long-term governance structures; whether or not a security component should be included; if so, how is security defined; how does a security function interact with an environmental function; does security and environment mean environmental security ; or, is an environmental mission one that should stand apart from security?

Nonetheless, the trend is clear: In the era of globalization Earth observation systems operations are transitioning from cooperation to integration, albeit slowly and with difficulty. A prime example, in addition to the efforts of GEO, GMES and STDM, is the move by Europe and the United States from their Initial Joint Polar System to their International Joint Polar System. The recent activation of the Disasters Charter by the United States is another major step in that direction.

However, as the politics and economics of these efforts evolve, particular note should be taken of the Disasters Charter in action. The fact is since 2000, satellite-operating nations changed their satellite-tasking priorities 84 times to provide timely, critical data at no cost to nations suffering a wide variety of disasters including hurricanes, floods, oil spills, earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions.

The U.S. activation of the Disasters Charter has significantly advanced its evolution. By activating the charter on its own behalf, the United States joins Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and other developed and/or spacefaring nations who also have activated it. Together, they have demonstrated that in the face of nature’s worst, well-organized assets create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, benefiting both developed and developing nations.

Developing long-term integrated Earth observation operations is an expensive, lengthy process. The Disasters Charter has irrevocably moved that process along in an historic way.

Here in Mississippi, we are learning that recovery from Katrina also will be an expensive, lengthy process. Activating the Disasters Charter on behalf of the United States and therefore the people of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi is an important step for both processes.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, and the Director of the National Remote Sensing and Space Law Center. She has been teaching space law since 1987 and is a member of the faculty at the University of Mississippi School of Law.