Pakistan flood damage mapped by UNOSAT at CERN

As the waters recede, the Pakistan floods are attracting less attention in the world's media. But at the CERN-based headquarters of UNOSAT, the UN Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Application Programme, mapping the damage caused by the floods remains the top priority as the “emergency phase” is only now beginning to level off.

Flood analysis in Pakistan from 28 July to 16 September 2010. Credits: © UNOSAT

UNOSAT uses impartial, objective data to assess the specifics of a disaster: What surface area has the flood covered? How many bridges and roads have been destroyed? How many areas are impenetrable? Although there are statistical answers to these questions, UNOSAT’s assessment of the damage caused by the Pakistan floods can be simply described in one word: catastrophic.

The images used by UNOSAT are taken from a variety of different sources – commercial and scientific. Once a satellite takes an image, the owner of the data sends it to a downloading station. This data is then transferred to UNOSAT’s data storage system at CERN. “Being located at CERN we can quickly download and store images,” explains Einar Bjorgo, UNOSAT’s Humanitarian Task Manager. “This allows us to do our job so much better than it could be done anywhere else.”

Before the analysis can begin, the data needs to be harmonized with UNOSAT’s system. Images arrive in “raw format”, as each satellite generates different resolutions and sizes that need to be reconfigured. On top of that, images taken by radars – which have the ability to see through clouds – are much more complex to interpret. All in all, it can be a lengthy process if not handled efficiently. The sooner images of a catastrophe are requested, the sooner information obtained from analysing them can get through to the humanitarian workers who need it.

In the case of the Pakistan floods, UNOSAT was on the ball right from the beginning. Unlike the Haiti earthquake, Pakistan’s disaster required regularly updated information as the floodwaters changed direction. “For dynamic situations like floods and conflict situations, it is important to report how they develop over time,” says Bjorgo. “In the case of an earthquake like Haiti, it’s more: it happens and you analyse the results.”

Although it has been three months since reports emerged about the Pakistan floods, the UNOSAT team is still tracking the moving waters. “What makes Pakistan different to other natural disasters is the pure scale and how long it has lasted. The actual flood event is just starting to retreat,” explains Bjorgo.

Long after the film crews have left, UNOSAT will remain with the catastrophe. “We stay – just as we stayed in Haiti, and just as we stayed a long time after the Tsunami in South-East Asia: looking at reconstruction, working with NGOs,” says Bjorgo. “We will still stay on this for a long, long time to come. But the emergency phase is fading out – the disaster is entering another phase, and so are we.”

by Katarina Anthony