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By Scott Baldauf  | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 5, 2007 edition

Cape Town, South Africa - When a massive earthquake shakes some corner of the Pacific Ocean, sensors alert Pacific Rim nations of possible tsunamis.  When massive downpours converge on the nations of Central America, satellite imagery and computer modeling helps those nations  to prepare for possible floods.

But what about Africa? This vast continent of 53 nations has been struck so often by natural disasters - from drought to flood  to disease - that the continent is all-too-often synonymous with cataclysm.

While such disasters will continue, technological help from the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) - a partnership of 72 nations  that share satellite imagery and other remote sensing information - will soon give African nations a leg up when it comes  to managing natural emergencies. At a meeting here on Nov. 30, GEO members agreed to expand the group's operations from the  Americas and Europe into Africa.

The expansion comes at a critical time. As climate change makes itself felt around the world, no one is more affected than  Africa's 800 million citizens. Any opportunity to prepare for and mitigate the effects of extreme changes in climate can help  nations prevent droughts from becoming famines, heavy rains from becoming floods, and an outbreak of disease from becoming  an epidemic.

"We are at the confluence of a number of events," says Vice Adm. (ret.) Conrad Lautenbacher (ret.), the US undersecretary  of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and one of GEO's co-chairs. "We have computing capabilities to produce worldwide models,"  he says. "We can observe what's happening with sensors on the ground and in space. And communication technology has opened  up the world, so that we can move this information around quickly."

With the expansion of GEO, the US and other developed countries have agreed to share satellite imagery and computer modeling  to suggest what may happen up to three months into the future. The data and computer models would cover not just weather patterns,  but also likely conditions for the spread of diseases such as malaria, for shifts in human population, and even for changes  in air quality.


For all its potential wealth in minerals, oil, and other natural resources, Africa remains a continent highly dependent on subsistence agriculture. In many countries, more than half of citizens survive literally on what they grow. Any extreme change  in weather can be devastating. In the two decades before 2000, according to GEO, more than 2 million people died because of  drought in three countries alone: Ethiopia, Sudan, and Mozambique. 


Competition from China and Brazil

While the GEO process is motivated by the spirit of scientific information-sharing and partnership, there is also a touch  of cold war-style competition for African hearts and minds - and their attendant deals for natural resources.

On Wednesday, China and Brazil announced a separate contribution to the GEO effort, which they call the Chinese Brazilian  Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS). They are offering real-time, high-resolution satellite imagery to developing countries  for free. The two countries will also offer on-demand geographic information system tools and training for those who need  it.