Sustainable Development

Images from space could bolster the global economy – here’s how

image of a satellite in space

Satellite technology could help tackle a range of social and economic challenges in Africa. Image: Unsplash/NASA

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Sustainable Development

This article is part of: Global Technology Governance Summit
  • Data collected from space can help countries tackle issues like water scarcity and food security.
  • Free and openly accessible earth observation data is already being used to predict crop yields and measure the impact of transport projects.
  • Satellites can map physical, economic and social changes when reliable data from other sources may not be consistently available.
  • Harnessing images in this way can help reduce water used to grow crops by as much as 33%.
  • This technology can support the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Using satellites to track changes in water, land, construction and vegetation can transform economies – and could unlock more than $2 billion a year of benefits for Africa alone.

This earth observation could be one of Africa’s most valuable assets, helping to tackle water scarcity, food security, coastal erosion and deforestation, according to a new Forum report.

Have you read?

The report, "Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges", quantifies the potential impact of Digital Earth Africa, a project launched in 2019 to make global satellite imagery more accessible.

And it’s particularly useful for developing countries, according to a World Bank blog, since satellites can map physical, economic and social changes where reliable socio-economic and demographic data may not be consistently available.

a graph showing that even under conservative assumptions, by 2024 DE Africa socioeconomic benefits could exceed $2bn per year
How it adds up. Image: World Economic Forum report: Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges

By providing ready-to-use data for decision-makers in government and business, the programme could boost Africa’s earth observation industry by $500 million by 2024 while providing $900 million in annual gains in agricultural productivity. This includes water savings, improved crop yields, insurance benefits and reduced pesticide use.

Another $900 million could be saved through better regulation of gold mining – particularly by reducing environmental damage and tax evasion from illegal mining.

a chart showing that using satellite data to better manage how water is used could save Africa more than $880m a year, according to Digital Earth Africa.
Using satellite data to better manage how water is used could save Africa more than $880m a year, according to Digital Earth Africa. Image: World Economic Forum report: Unlocking the potential of Earth Observation to address Africa’s critical challenges

Building resilience

As the COVID-19 crisis evolves, ensuring earth observation data is widely available will help Africa monitor changes in people and the environment, while building resilience.

There are also “new opportunities for industry profitability and productivity in many sectors, such as land planning, agriculture and mineral exploration,” the Forum says.

Examples in the report include a trial in Salinas, California, where NASA has demonstrated that satellite images can reduce water used to grow lettuce and broccoli crops by up to 33%, relative to standard practice.

Digital Earth Africa uses openly accessible and freely available satellite observations to produce its "decision-ready" products.

To help bridge key social and economic inequalities, the Forum has called for more geospatial data to be integrated into business models and political decision-making. It is calling on governments, industry and entrepreneurs across Africa to drive this change.

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Fundamental force

The increasing availability of satellite data is one of the "fundamental forces" shaping economic development, according to the World Bank, which provides financial and technical support to developing countries.

One of its projects involves using satellite data to help developing countries make progress on the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These include ending poverty and hunger and combatting climate change in the run up to 2030.

Satellite tools and measurements have led to innovations in areas such as predicting crop yields in small-holder farms in Uganda, measuring the impacts of transport projects in South Asia and India, access to electricity in rural areas, and mapping land cover and land use dynamics in Vietnam.

“Earth observation data provides valuable information about the nature, evolution and drivers of economic development,” according to the World Bank blog on innovations in satellite measurement.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentAfricaAgriculture, Food and BeverageFourth Industrial RevolutionDavos AgendaDavos Agenda
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