With 22 states, the Arab region stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the far west through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea all the way to the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean in the far east. Yet, despite the geographical vastness of the region, Arab countries share the same environmental and climate challenges.
Space technology can play a crucial role in informing decision- and policy-makers to address these challenges and contribute to the achievement and progress of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More and more Arab states have been taking progressive steps towards the advancement of their national space technology and have launched earth observation satellites. Cost predictions for space technology have recently moved to the top of government budgets and more space agencies are being established across the region.
Space technology and remote sensing applications can help predict and solve our environmental and climate challenges
The current climate crisis and the complexity of our planet’s ecosystems need real-time data to efficiently target problems and prevent environmental disasters in a timely manner. Here is where space technology can help: by monitoring, mitigating, and providing critical advice for decision-making processes.
For example, remote sensing satellites can monitor marine resources and pollution levels. Satellite sensors can also provide real-time data on the quality of the air, with critical information to improve the population’s well-being. Simulations of dust movement show how, and by how much, sand moves in the atmosphere, worsening the conditions of those suffering from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and putting pressure on the health of the youngest (SDG 3). With sand dunes being a big part of the geography of Arab countries, their movement also poses a serious threat to the safety on the roads, agricultural cultivation, and new development plans. Satellite data allows users to recognise the movement of the sand with a precision range of 2 mm per second and to facilitate the suggestion of alternative routes to travellers, and to increase agricultural productivity and profitability through informed management processes (SDG 2).
Over the course of two years, from 2016 to 2018, a regional study using satellite data recorded nearly 127 oil spills alongside the Moroccan Atlantic Coast polluting the waters and the coastlines of the country and nearly 279 oil spill cases in the Egyptian coastline of the Mediterranean and Red Sea. But oil spills never affect just one country. They quickly become a regional problem and could lead to natural disasters. Satellites can also monitor the cross-border impact of oil spills, providing detailed information about the source of the pollution, such as determining from which oil platform it came and the kind of production (SDG 14).
Space technology can also monitor rising sea levels and their impact on the coastal cultural heritage of Arab countries. For example, in Alexandria simulations were run to test how different scenarios could impact the city’s coastline. The same is true for inland cultural heritage impacted by temperature increases and decreases, flash floods, and droughts. By collecting data even over a small period of time (15-30 days), satellite technology allows users to predict scenarios and inform preventative actions (SDG 15).
Satellites have also helped monitor, in an emergency crisis, the incident of the Ever Given ship stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, controlling the risk on an hourly basis and suggesting solutions.
These are only a few examples of the many applications of space technology, but the link between using real-time satellite data to improve regional environmental conditions even in the most remote areas, fight the spread of diseases, and overall improve global health is evident. They are key in understanding climate change, preventing natural disasters, and equipping the population with the right tools to make better health decisions. Thanks to the information derived from earth observation and meteorological satellites, space technologies hold the potential to help achieve the SDGs.
Why is regional collaboration important?
All of the challenges and threats mentioned above are shared among the Arab states. They do not affect just one country but the region as a whole, at times also having spill-over effects from one country to another.
To ensure that these challenges are addressed in a timely and efficient way, the Arab Space community needs dedicated training and strategic support to improve industry and research development. With the space industry expected to contribute to Egypt’s GDP in the next 10 years, collaboration is needed now more than ever.
There are already a lot of satellites in Egypt, Algeria, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Oman, and Morocco, with many more being launched in the near future. There are also several ongoing projects that are collaborating with some sub-Saharan African countries. For example, the African Development Satellite Initiative (AfDev-Sat) – led by the Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA) with Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria – aims at cooperating to detect climate change and enable African countries to build their own space system.
As for every SDG, a country alone cannot dream of fully achieving a target by itself. It is essential to use its individual competitive advantages while joining forces with other countries to share resources and efforts.
How can collaboration happen?
The development of a more united front in the Arab space industry is challenged by bottlenecks such as the lack of awareness of the benefits of space technologies, limited financial support, and technology and skills gaps.
A regional strategy to support this development and regional cooperation has to be developed and should include an improved policy for sharing space infrastructure to run tests, to process and archive data, and overall to promote the region’s satellite and rocket launching capabilities. Egypt already has a physical infrastructure in place, for example the Satellite Assembly, Integration and Test Centre (AITC).
Human capital development is also a potential collaboration area. Exchanging expertise and organising joint training programmes will allow the building of a solid talent pool of space scientists and engineers in the Arab countries and, eventually, reinforce the region’s role in the field. Similarly, sharing space resources and data for regional applications for service development, and establishing regional funding for joint research and innovation programmes are all key to foster economic growth and create new job opportunities (SDG 8).
But for all of this to happen, an enabling environment is needed to find synergies and leverage public-private collaboration and mobilise financial resources as an investment rather than a cost.
At eAGE22 in Cairo, Egypt, Prof Dr Islam Abou El-Magd delivered a keynote on the topic and concluded his presentation with the proposal to initiate regional coordination between the Arab states by developing an earth observation platform to analyse remote sensing data and provide solution to critical issues. Cross-border cooperation in the development of a satellite constellation would be the perfect opportunity to strengthen the space technology in the Arab world and enable flow of data that target the region’s needs.
“The advancement of space technology is at maximum and whoever delay will not be able to be in the race. Recently, the total space budget in the Arab region exceeds $1.5 bn and the region has demonstrated remarkable dynamicity in this technology. Hence, it is the right time for Arab states to coordinate and cooperate in space technology and its applications to meet our regional challenges and improve our socio-economic growth aiming at increasing the revenue from space industry. Egypt is hosting the African Space Agency that will implement the African Space Policy and Strategy to achieve the African Agenda 2063 and the UN SDGs. It is an inspiration to Arab states to follow the steps.” – Prof Dr Islam Abou El-Magd, Executive Vice President of the Egyptian Space Agency and Counsellor for the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research for African Affairs and Space Technology
Potential impact of Arab NRENs in space technology
Space technology collects vast amounts of data from satellites and other systems which it stores, analyses and distributes for a wide range of applications including environment protection, agriculture, health, transport, climate change, sustainable development, and emergency response and crisis management.
To ensure the continued distribution of these datasets regionally, the Arab States Research and Education Network (ASREN) and the Arab NRENs can operate as an essential partner, delivering the scalable, robust capacity required to meet the space technology critical parameters, including bandwidth and latency, reliability, and geographical scope.
The Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA) is directly connected via the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology via a 70Gbps link (gigabits per second), connecting researchers and decision makers through the connectivity and data services.
The Egyptian National Scientific and Technical Information Network (ENSTINET) plays a significant role in the connectivity of 12 research centres. Last year, ENSTINET became the official beneficiary partner in Egypt for the European Union’s co-funded project AfricaConnect3, which is delivered locally by ASREN. Through the AfricaConnect3 project, ENSTINET will be provided with a high-capacity international internet connectivity for academic and scientific collaborations connecting the research and education communities in Egypt with the pan-European GÉANT network and the rest of the world. This important partnership can significantly enhance space technology field activities in Egypt and help researchers and policy makers improve their decision-making, which could have dramatic benefits for society.
EgSA is a Governmental Organization that’s aiming at acquiring Space Technology and Satellite Launching capabilities towards the accomplishment of The National Sustainable Development Strategy “Egypt-SDS 2030” objectives. The agency is targeting the promotion of the peaceful use of space, develop space systems at the national level through investment in human capital development, leveraging the space industry for a sustainable future, supporting research and development, drive innovations, and enhancing space outreach developing of reliable, responsive and viable economical solutions to serve the national objectives.
ENSTINET is a public information services organization which manage, operate, monitor and further develop the Egyptian National Research and Education Network. Its objective is to assist Egyptian problem solvers and decision makers to access and apply quality data and relevant current information to development. ENSTINET is operated by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT), which is the national umbrella for the planning of scientific research activities in Egypt.