In conversation with Dr. Jane Olwoch, MD SANSA Earth Observation: Remote sensing – we need more expertise

February 3rd, 2015, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Uncategorised articles

Dr Jane Olwoch, MD SANSA Earth Observation

Dr. Jane Olwoch, MD SANSA Earth Observation

At one time the environment dictated to mankind, now mankind shapes the environment but often not in a way to that is sustainable for our future on Earth, the place we call home.  I had an enlightening conversation with Dr. Jane Olwoch, MD Earth Observation of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) about the role that satellites and remote sensing can play in ensuring  that with our “shaping” of the environment we minimise any harm – if not totally eliminate  – the harsh impact made by humans on the environment.

“From my perspective,” Dr. Olwoch said “it is central to sustainability of people. That is why for me it is not just a job. Today we do not have to rely on field workers to monitor the environment but we have satellite imagery to monitor how the environment shapes itself naturally and the impact people make. That is why it is important for us to continuously motivate the value-add that we get from satellite imagery.

“Satellite imagery has improved the understanding of the environment quickly and efficiently and is able to monitor large areas. We can monitor them at night and even through cloud.  We have therefore no reason not to take the correct decisions to protect our environment. However we need to create more capacity in government departments and municipalities to understand the value of satellite imagery and how to use it in planning and implementation of environmental control and management programmes.”

The effective and valuable use of satellite imagery was clearly illustrated during the recent floods in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar.  The south-eastern region of Africa was affected by heavy rainfall, causing what will most likely go down in history as the worst natural disaster of 2015. Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar were seriously affected, resulting in the deaths of at least 260 people and leaving 260 000 homeless in all three countries combined.

The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was activated on 8  and 18 January 2015 for the floods which occurred in Malawi and Madagascar respectively. Satellite data was used to map the extent of the floods and to assess the impact of the disaster on livelihoods and infrastructure. Due to persistent cloud cover over the affected region, radar data covering the floods in Malawi was acquired on the 10 and 13  January 2015 by TerraSAR-X and RadarSAT-2.

“It is this kind of fast and accurate information that assists disaster relief agencies to act quickly – which some years ago when satellite imagery was not available would have taken a long time with mostl likely an even greater loss of life,” said Dr. Olwoch.

“One of the limiting factors to getting maximum benefit from advanced satellite imagery is the lack of enough trained personnel to interpret the data.  To address this we introduced the Fundisa project; and annually distribute the Fundisa disk to tertiary institutions to assist students in the use of satellite imagery. We started the initiative in 2009 with an overview and gateway to remote sensing. “Fundisa”, which means ”to teach” in Zulu, is an appropriate way of describing the functionality of this geospatial tool. The Fundisa disk is made up of an assortment of Earth observation data such as satellite imagery, a variety of vector data, open source software, and sample imagery. The sad part is that the disks tend to be housed in one department which does not allow many interested students to access it. It needs to be a university-wide resource.

“Currently there is no degree course in satellite imagery at any university in South Africa. Satellite imagery is only available at some universities as a subject. The other problem is that there are currently no bursaries available in this subject.”

There is some glimmer of hope to rectify this position with the proposal by the African Union that the southern, space sciences node of the Pan African University (PAU) will be hosted in South Africa. The University of Stellenbosch was hinted as the possible candidate to host the PAU. A meeting of Southern African Development Community science ministers held in the Mozambican capital Maputo on 16 to 20 June 2014  reportedly decided to give the southern campus of the Pan African University to South Africa. The southern node of the university is expected to promote research in space sciences to augment Southern Africa’s hosting of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.

“It is currently on the agenda of the Department of Science and Technology,” said Dr. Olwoch. “I sincerely hope that a decision will be made soon.

“To promote the benefit of satellite imagery we have held a workshop with municipalities. It is encouraging that Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane municipalities have approached us to meet with them to develop a programme  how best staff can be trained to make efficient use of the imagery that we receive from a number of  Earth observation satellites and make available.

“We are also at an advanced stage in planning South Africa’s own remote sensing satellite; EOSAT-1 which when launched will provide so much more real-time data. This is another good reason why universities need to become more involved; even perhaps in the near future establishing a chair in satellite imagery and remote sensing!”

By spending time with Dr. Olwoch it is clear that it is not just a job for her, but a passion. “By increasing awareness of what can be achieved with satellite imagery  I believe that South Africa will derive more and more benefit, particularly when our own satellite EOSAT-1 become a reality,” she said.

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