To gather information on logging in Cambodia, forestry officials often have no choice but to spend hours in four-wheel drive trucks, bouncing down rutted and washed-out roads, to inspect the forest first-hand. Such are the problems of gathering accurate information in a developing country.
But the world of high technology may offer an alternative—pictures from space.
“It’s going to provide the data to analyze the obvious problems the world over is facing,” said Gottfried Konency of Germany’s Hannover University at the opening of a four-day conference on the uses of satellite images. The conference is sponsored by the National Space Development Agency of Japan and the Remote Sensing Technology Center of Japan.
Satellites can be used to monitor storms, map vegetation distribution and chart global climate changes year-to-year. Infrared satellites can pick up plant diseases in crops and radar satellites can record images through heavy cloud cover and at night. They can even watch a ship dumping pollution into the sea.
The biggest drawback for developing countries is the price. Depending on the quantity and detail, images can cost several hundred thousand dollars. But with the help of donor agencies, Cambodia has already found a use for satellite imaging.
The forest-management office has started using satellite images to monitor logging concessions through a project with the German Development Agency. The success of such programs are proven, Konency said. Brazil already has an established program monitoring how much rain forest in the Amazon is lost each year.
Satellite images were used by the Japanese government when planning construction of the bridge across the Mekong in Kompong Cham. Images from different seasons showed which roads leading up to the bridge site would be passable during the rainy season.
Most recently, the Japanese government has been using satellite images for a road-building project around the Tonle Sap lake to determine which areas are outside the flood plain and suitable for roads.
Satellite images are most often combined with other information, such as soil maps and geological charts, said Lal Samarakoon from the Asian Institute of Technology. “We can put all these things together to decide which area is suitable for a particular crop or development,” he said.
The costs for satellite images range from $1 per square km to $100 per square km. “Everything is money,” said Shunji Murai, of Tokyo University. “Satellites so far are so expensive.”
The Asian Institute of Technology has given the Cambodian government 500 CD-ROMs with satellite images of Phnom Penh and surrounding areas, and some other satellite images could be available for free, Samarakoon said. But Cambodia—or a donor —would have to pay for specialized data.
“To my mind though, it’s actually quite cost-effective,” said Jeffrey Himel of Aruna Technology, a high-tech firm in Cambodia that has worked on radar satellite projects.
In 1997, Aruna Technology and the World Food Program conducted a pilot program along the Mekong mapping flooded areas. The company was also involved in a project mapping flooding patterns in the Tonle Sap lake.
“While it appears expensive, what’s the cost of not knowing the information?” Himel said.
Flooding can result in millions of dollars of damage. After heavy flooding, relief agencies have to know which areas are under water to channel their aid in the most efficient way. “This is the only way you can get that kind of information,” Himel said.
For countries like Cambodia, there can be another powerful advantage in satellite information, according to Murai of Tokyo University.
“Most developing country governments try to cheat their people, try to hide everything,” he said. With satellites, it’s harder to conceal the facts about problems ranging from illegal dumping to logging to land use.
“Satellite imaging,” Konency said, “is objective.”