By Chaitanya Giri*
Two epochal developments – the Indo-Pacific region’s emergence as the fulcrum of the world economy and the mounting global climate crisis – are bringing new attention to a constellation of Earth-Observation (EO) satellites that are vital to managing economic life and coping with climate change. These two sets of issues have thrust India, which maintains the largest fleet of EO satellites in the Indo-Pacific, into a key leadership role in harnessing this technology for the benefit of the region and the rest of the world. The importance of these issues to the Indo-Pacific region, and to the global economy, is hard to underestimate. The region dominates the global manufacturing, maritime trade, and blue economies. Many of its nations are at the top or high in the rankings of countries on global gross domestic product. The region’s economic powerhouses, including the United States (U.S.), China, Russia, India, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Vietnam, and South Korea, have an enormous trade footprint . In addition, The Indo-Pacific is also home to the world’s tightest cluster of the human population – half of the world’s people live in an area commonly known as the Valeriepieris Circle, which is centered in the South China Sea and has a radius of about 4,000 kilometers .
Earth-observation satellites take images of the Earth in visible, infrared, near-infrared, optical, and ultraviolet ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, cost-effectively producing rich data on the environment, weather, and economic activities on land and sea. With the ability to collect data on sites as small as a few kilometers in length or as large as entire regions and the entire globe, they are increasingly important in managing economic life and monitoring carbon emissions, and coping with the range of natural disasters associated with climate change.
Numerous large business corporations worldwide have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality in the next two decades as part of public-private efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Whole countries are joining them. The U.S. and PRC pledged at the October 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow to reach net-zero emissions by 2050  and 2060  respectively. India has vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2070 in concert with its neighbors.  But reducing the impact of anthropogenic climate on the planet, including the Indo-Pacific, is a responsibility shared by current emitting nations and potential future ones alike. Besides using its EO satellites to achieve its own commitments, India has made clear its determination to work with other developed countries and many developing countries to achieve their climate-action goals as well. It also has stressed the need for concerted, global action.
India’s role in equipping Earth Observation Satellites
“The Indo-Pacific concept is not tomorrow’s forecast but yesterday’s reality,” explains India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar. “It captures a mix of India’s broadening horizons, widening interests, and globalized activities. The Indo-Pacific is central to India’s exports and imports .”
India has a sound understanding of the challenges faced by both developed and developing economies. It also has a history of productive bilateral and multilateral space cooperation. The U.S.-India NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite and the France-India Megha-Tropiques satellite are stellar examples of joint Earth-observation missions. NISAR, to be launched in 2023 , will give better insights on ecosystem disturbances, expansion and retreat of polar ice caps, and natural hazards like volcanism, earthquakes, and tsunamis. This mission will be of consequence to the Indo-Pacific region, which is vulnerable to the hazards of the Pacific Ring of Fire – the horseshoe-shaped, earthquake- and volcano-prone belt spanning New Zealand, the Southwest Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Eastern Russia, Alaska, and running along the western coast of North, Central and South America. NISAR also will be vitally important to countries in South Asia, Eurasia, and East Asia, which will benefit from mapping and monitoring of polar and mountainous icecaps because they are dependent on glacier-fed rivers.
Likewise, the currently operational Indo-French Megha-Tropiques satellite , has been studying precipitation patterns along the planet’s tropical regions and computing several variables about the water cycle. Many economies in the Indo-Pacific region, especially the agrarian ones, are heavily dependent on precipitation, while nearly all are prone to floods, droughts, cyclones, and typhoons. The Megha-Tropiques satellite can provide datasets that disaster management agencies, state and provincial governments, and research and educational institutions need for disaster preparedness and mitigation actions.
For the past 26 years, India’s Department of Space has been the nodal agency operating a 17-nation human resource development program known as the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP) . This United Nations-affiliated program has trained scientific and technical personnel from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Netherlands, Thailand, and even North Korea. The CSSTEAP has trained scientists, helped policymakers, and educated students and disaster management professionals as also those from administrative services and health services. In addition to its important contribution to science, the program has strengthened diplomatic relations generally. India’s success with CSSTEAP can be extended to a wider cohort of Indo-Pacific nations and lead to more bilateral and multilateral EO data sharing.
On the multilateral front, India, on various occasions, has agreed to share geospatial data for monitoring global climate change, major disasters, and environmental protection with Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa through the BRICS association , and independently with partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.  In April 2018, the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) took steps to provide EO datasets from its RESOURCESAT-2 and OCEANSAT-2 satellites to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. Many of the ASEAN nations – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – are not members of CSSTEAP. ASEAN nations could use data from these two satellites for disaster management; rural, forestry, and urban land-use management; identifying mineral deposits, and a host of other applications. Through its outreach to ASEAN nations, the Government of India initiated training of professionals from these countries on space science, technology, and applications . By offering such training and sharing data, India will be able to tailor its datasets and analyses to meet the needs of Indo-Pacific countries and eventually create a wide commercial base of end-users. In the process, India can consolidate its role as an end-to-end provider of both governmental and commercial EO data to the public- and private-sector users.
In the coming years, many developing nations from the Indo-Pacific region will acquire the know-how to operate indigenously assembled EO satellites to meet needs such as disaster management, agriculture, forestry, urban and rural land-use management, and more. Many will continue to depend on space-capable nations through bodies like the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) to acquire EO datasets and human-resource capacity building.
India’s EO collaborations with ASEAN, BRICS, the Quad, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), its several bilateral EO partnerships, its recent chair position (for the year 2020) in the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (an international organization consisting of 63 space agencies of the world), and its noteworthy role in the human-resource capacity building via CSSTEAP are building blocks for India’s growing role as a provider of EO data and training to many nations in the Indo-Pacific region.
India is not alone in providing such datasets and training. The U.S., China, and Japan have comparable competencies. But since India’s geography, socio-economic conditions, and climate are similar to those of many Indo-Pacific nations, its training and datasets will have immediate functionality. To add to that, the Government of India is currently drafting a comprehensive and momentous National Geospatial Policy (NGP) , which will be vital for unlocking EO datasets that are not readily available to private entities and individuals. This will create a tremendous opportunity for value-added service () providers to commercialize cost-effective EO datasets for end-users in the international markets. The NGP, once implemented, can create a vast ecosystem of Indian-origin and India-based VAS providers that can provide multispectral and hyperspectral geospatial (optical, infrared, ultraviolet, and synthetic aperture radar) datasets at cost-effective rates to many nations of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The commercial EO datasets provided by VAS providers will be necessary for upholding the public-private climate commitments of business corporations and governments.
India can use its strengths in the digital sector and its pole position over information technology to find a broader end-user base among the Indo-Pacific nations. To serve that end, India’s space business ecosystem must shape the draft National Geospatial Policy in a way that provides India the opportunity to avail of business opportunities when it assumes the second presidency of the United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress (UN-WGIC) in 2022  and in 2023 when it assumes the presidency of Group of Twenty (G20) and its sub-event, the Space Economy Leaders Meeting (Space 20) . The UN-WGIC is a new platform of the UN-Global Geospatial Information Management. India will be the second nation to preside over it; China presided over it in 2018 . Likewise, Space20 was initiated only in 2020 during Saudi Arabia’s presidency . India can use both these platforms to put forth new plans for greater commercial and governmental diffusion of India-origin and India-based, valued-added geospatial data services among the Indo-Pacific countries.
*About the author: Dr. Chaitanya Giri is the former Gateway House Fellow of Space and Ocean Studies Programme.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors. The views expressed in the paper do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Embassy, New Delhi.
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