At the end of the 1990s, the space agencies wanted to make their satellites available for crisis management. The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters is an international cooperation agreement between space agencies. The principle of the Charter is based on making images and data acquired by Earth observation satellites available free of charge to the authorities responsible for organizing relief efforts in disaster areas, via a unified coordinated image acquisition and delivery system, regardless of the region of the world affected.
This agreement was set up in 1999 on the initiative of the French National Centre for Space Studies and the European Space Agency. This initiative quickly won the support of new partners. The CSA (Canadian Space Agency) joined the Charter in 2000, followed by NOAA/USGS (U.S.A.) and ISRO (India) in 2001, CONAE (Argentina) in 2003, JAXA (Japan) and UKSA (ex-BNSC, United Kingdom) in 2005, then CNSA (China) in 2007. These agencies take turns chairing the Charter every six months. Recently, the United Arab Emirates have asked to join this international agreement.
How does the Charter work?
Each space agency that is a member of the Charter cooperates voluntarily. There is no monetization. The actors undertake to provide free of charge the resources at their disposal to contribute to its functioning. Only those agencies that possess data based on Earth Observation and are in a position to provide it can be members of the Charter.
When can the Charter be activated?
The Charter can only be activated in the event of major disasters. It’s a brutal phenomenon creating a situation of great distress with significant loss of life or material damage. It is the authorized user (see below) who decides on this qualification. Examples include earthquakes, fires, floods or technological disasters that may occur in the event of a train or plane crash, or an accident in a factory or power station. It was also possible to activate the charter in the event of an epidemic to identify local hospitals and emergency response infrastructures. The request for activation can only be made and accepted in the response phase (from 10 days after the disaster has occurred). The Charter cannot be activated for slow progressing disasters such as droughts.
How to activate the Charter?
An activation can be triggered by an Authorized User (AU). There are 64 of them. In France it is the operational centre for inter-ministerial crisis management. There is one AU per country. However, it’s possible to trigger the charter for another country. Designated AUs call a confidential telephone number, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and fill in a user request form to be returned by email or fax. In certain circumstances, cooperation bodies/ organisations with which Charter members collaborate may also request data in the event of a disaster. A 24-hour on-call operator then receives the request. The operator transmits the information to an agent in charge of receiving distress calls (ECO). The operator then prepares an archiving and acquisition plan using available satellite resources, planning which would be the best satellites to use according to the AU’s request. This plan is submitted to the Space Agency concerned, which programmes their most suitable sensors if the demand can be met. See diagram at the end.
Has it already been activated?
Between its operational implementation in November 2000 and 19 October 2010, the Charter has been activated 280 times, and already 39 times since the beginning of 2010, notably for the earthquake in Haiti in January. “The frequency of activation is tending to increase. This can be explained by the fact that actors are increasingly familiar with the mechanism and the number of potential users is increasing” explains Eliane Cubero-Castan, CNES member of the Charter’s executive secretariat. The latest activations are extremely recent with the earthquake in Indonesia on 15 January 2021, but also with the flood in Morocco on 12 January 2021 and the flood in Bolivia on 4 January 2021. The Charter is used worldwide for monitoring natural disasters mainly related to meteorological, seismic and volcanic phenomena. It demonstrates the contribution of space to crisis management by facilitating the work of relief teams in the field.
What is at stake now?
“The charter is a place to be” Helene de Boissezon engineer at CNES. Cooperation in the field of earth observation for crisis situations is present and working. However, it needs improvement, especially on crisis prevention rather than crisis response.