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US Satellites to Help Mekong River Region Deal with Climate Change

FILE - The remnants of a house built on the Mekong river banks is pictured after a portion of it collapsed when the soil underneath gave way, in Kandal province.
FILE - The remnants of a house built on the Mekong river banks is pictured after a portion of it collapsed when the soil underneath gave way, in Kandal province.

U.S. satellite imagery from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is expected to soon begin helping the roughly 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong River Basin of Southeast Asia to deal with natural disasters and the challenges of climate change. The project adds to NASA’s existing programs that already help communities in South America, Africa and South Asia.

The five-year U.S.-led project brings together the Lower Mekong nations of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, as the region faces growing challenges from the impact of climate change, in particular increasingly severe weather patterns.

Environmentalists say these challenges include issues over water use, deforestation, floods and disaster mitigation.

The United Nations' Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR, says costs are rising from natural disasters and that from 2000 to 2012 the world’s damage bill from climate related disasters stood at $1.7 billion, claiming 1.2 million lives and affecting 2.9 billion people.

In a bid to improve information for communities at risk, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), backed by the U.S. development agency, USAID, is to work with local partners, including Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, or ADPC, to provide satellite imagery to the region's governments.

ADPC project officer, Gabrielle Iglesias, says the project aims to provide information about changing conditions to communities and help them use it effectively.

"This project will be addressing both those steps -- the development of the tools to process the information, the satellite obtained data and then to raise the capacity for decision makers to understand and interpret the results of this analysis for use in their own decision making over land use, environmental protection, adaptation," she said.

Senior USAID officials say the data will be passed on to scientists, government representatives, national resource managers and disaster response specialists. In a statement to VOA, officials said the aim was to more effectively target support to the most urgent areas after natural disasters.

The costs of obtaining such satellite imagery have sharply declined in recent years, making the information more accessible. Such data is valuable especially in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. In 2008 Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta region of Myanmar, also known as Burma, claiming more than 130,000 lives.

ADPC's Iglesias says the tragedy of cyclone Nargis highlights the need for more information at critical times. "Another important aspect is to improve disaster preparedness itself. So in the case of typhoon Nargis for example in Myanmar part of the problem is not the availability of early warning but what to do when you get the information that the cyclone is headed towards a specific part of Myanmar. So then the issue of the time was where to evacuate people and a lack of evacuation routes to shelters and so on," she states.

The satellite imagery, geospatial data and maps would assist in areas ranging from water management, land use planning, disaster risk reduction, infrastructure development and natural resource management.

Such satellite data has already been applied in Bangladesh, Tanzania, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Kenya in response to issues ranging from rainfall patterns, vector-borne diseases such as malaria, the spread of algae blooms and wildlife and forestry protection.

USAID officials says the Lower Mekong region also is facing increasingly complex development challenges, adding it is important to draw on the full potential of science and technology for decision making.