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Philippines: Satellite imagery pinpoints vulnerability

30 Sep 2013


September 2013, Mindanao, Philippines: A before and after comparison of the Santa Catalina neighbourhood in Zamboanga City. The two images - the one on the left was taken on 28 August, the one on the right on 17 September - clearly show the destruction of homes and buildings. OCHA has been using imagery like this to identify communities affected by violence in the area. Credit: UNOSAT
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The UN is using satellite imagery to overcome access constraints and identify communities affected by recent fighting in the southern Philippines.

The UN has used satellite imagery to map the humanitarian fallout of recent violence on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Fighting between a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front and Government forces has left an estimated 131,000 people displaced and killed at least 130. More than 10,000 homes have been destroyed.

Despite the scale of the unfolding crisis, information about who has been affected and the extent of the damage has been hard to find. Continued fighting has made it too dangerous for aid agencies to access many of the worst-affected communities, who in turn have been effectively trapped by the violence.

The satellite images found tens of thousands of people crammed inside the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sport Complex, in Zamboanga City on the far western tip of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. A follow-up assessment mission to the stadium found that the people there are still struggling to make sense of what has happened to them in recent weeks. Each day they line up for food, medicines and other supplies, all of which are in increasingly short supply.

The UN Satellite Office

In mid-September, at the request of OCHA, the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme produced satellite images and analysis of Zamboanga and Basilan provinces – the two worst affected areas – providing critical insight into the locations of displaced communities and the extent of damage to buildings and infrastructure. More than 3,400 destroyed structures were identified.

Elizabeth Marasco, an OCHA Information Management Officer in the Philippines, said: “by using satellite imagery, we were able to see the extent of damage in areas inaccessible to aid workers due to the fighting.”

The real-time images and analysis have helped authorities and aid organizations measure the scale of damage, and to prepare critical projects that will help people recover as quickly as possible. Planned assistance includes debris removal, provision of health services, school rehabilitation and the construction of temporary shelters.

OCHA and its partners often use this type of analysis in the wake of natural disasters. But the use of satellite imagery in the context of conflicts and complex emergencies is increasing, especially in places like Somalia where violence often prevents aid workers from accessing isolated communities.

Humanitarian situation worsens

The humanitarian situation in south-western Mindanao continues to worsen. Fresh satellite images received on 21 September identified 800 newly destroyed buildings. These images also highlighted the increasingly critical situation at the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sport Complex in Zamboanga City. The government expects that the sports stadium will continue to be an evacuation centre until at least the end of 2013.

The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, Luiza Carvalho, has expressed her concern for people affected and displaced by the fighting.

“We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence,” she said. “We are particularly concerned that aid is delivered in an impartial manner, with the needs of the most vulnerable met and those outside the evacuation centres not forgotten.

“The United Nations calls on all parties to uphold the principles of impartiality, humanity, neutrality and independence, enshrined in International Humanitarian Law,” she continued. “We expect that all humanitarian workers providing support to the victims of violence are protected and respected, and their safety is ensured by all actors.”