From policies to action: Institutionalizing the use of space-based information in disaster-risk management and emergency response in Latin America

Juan Carlos Villagran de Leon, Programme Officer, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UNOOSA/UN-SPIDER)


One of the tasks of UN-SPIDER, as stated in its mandate given by the General Assembly, is to enhance the capacities of countries to access and to use all types of space-based information for disaster management. In order to identify how to strengthen the capacity of disaster-risk management and emergency response agencies of using space-based information, UN-SPIDER has been conducting Technical Advisory Missions to countries in different regions of the world, including Latin America and the Caribbean. Such missions include a review of policies and strategies concerning access and use of information, particularly space-based information, and serve as the basis for UN-SPIDER to provide technical advisory support to government agencies. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, UN-SPIDER has conducted these types of missions to Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Guatemala during 2009 and 2010.

As stated in UN-SPIDER’s Capacity Building Strategy (1), the sustained use of space-based information in tasks related to disaster-risk management and emergency response is supported through institutional policies and strategies. Such policies and strategies manifest the institutional recognition of the value of using this type of information, as well as any other type of information to make decisions; and allow directors of such institutions to channel resources towards the generation and use of information.

This article focuses on the review of existing policies and strategies for the use of space-based information in the above-mentioned Latin American countries, and stems from the research conducted by experts who have participated in the Technical Advisory Missions conducted to these countries. The comparative review aims to manifest advances on the use of such information in these countries, as well as additional efforts that would allow such countries to take even more advantage of existing opportunities concerning space-based information.

The generation, dissemination, and use of information within the context of national policies targeting disaster risk management and emergency response

While the use of any type of information for a variety of purposes usually starts with ad-hoc efforts, the institutionalization process begins to take shape when policies are enacted, as such policies facilitate the permanent allocation of the required resources to conduct the various tasks that are involved in the use of information. Furthermore, approaches to using space-based information in the context of disaster-risk management and emergency response vary from country to country. In some countries such as Ecuador, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala, the use of space-based information has progressed initially via efforts focusing on environmental management including the proper or sustainable use of natural resources, and is gradually finding its way into emergency response, and to a lesser degree into disaster-risk management. In Ecuador the use of space-based information, particularly via remote-sensing approaches, began through a particular circumstance whereby the Center for the Integrated Acquisition of Information on Natural Resources (CLIRSEN) (2) was established in 1977 to elaborate the inventory of natural resources at the national level, and in 1982 it received the mandate from the Government of Ecuador to take over the satellite receiving station which was installed by the National Air and Space Administration of the United States (NASA) in 1957 in the foothills of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. In recent decades, CLIRSEN has been promoting the application of space-based information for a variety of purposes and has contributed through the provision of data to institutions such as the Geophysical Institute of the National Polytechnic School (EPN) which tracks volcanic activity and the Institute of Geology, which is in charge of tracking landslides throughout the country. A similar situation is found to this day in the Dominican Republic, in Jamaica, and in Guatemala, where satellite imagery is used to a larger extent by Ministries of Environment to track forests and natural resources.

Taking into consideration the fact that space-based information can be used for a variety of purposes, its use in the context of disaster-risk management and emergency response is reviewed in this article through those policies and strategies that have been explicitly enacted and implemented to target both these phases of the disaster management cycle. But as it is to be expected, it is essential to begin the review analyzing how information, whether it is space-based, or ground-based, is being recognized at this policy level. In this more general context, it could be stated that Ecuador again has taken considerable steps regarding the use of information at the highest policy level. In the new Constitution enacted in 2008, the Government introduced specific legislation focusing on disaster-risk management through Articles 389 and 390 (3). The policy recognizes the need to establish the National De-Centralized Disaster-Risk Management System, highlighting the need to identify risks and to generate and disseminate information on a timely basis for risk-management purposes. However, the legislation does not mention space-based information in an explicit fashion.

In other countries, the use of information for disaster-risk management has not been incorporated at the high level of the constitution, but it has been introduced through specific legislation enacted by the respective Congresses. In the case of the Dominican Republic, the national law No. 147-02 was enacted in 2002 to establish the National System for Prevention, Mitigation, and Disaster Response (4). Article 15 of this legislation delegates the establishment of the National Integrated Information System to the National Emergency Commission (CNE), which should target the generation of information concerning hazards, vulnerabilities, and risks throughout the country. In Jamaica, the Disaster Management Act No. 15 of 1993 established the Office for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response (ODPEM) and included a specific function that targeted the generation of information on hazards, with the aim of identifying and analyzing such hazards or emergency situations and conducting operational research into their effects. Finally, in Guatemala, the National Decree 109-96 (5), which established the National Coordinating Agency for Disaster Reduction (CONRED), also recognized the need to conduct research targeting hazards, vulnerability, and risk.

As it can be seen, the need to generate information on hazards, vulnerabilities, and risk is recognized as essential at the highest policy level, and should serve as the basis to institutionalize the generation and subsequent dissemination of the corresponding information. However, as stated earlier, none of these legislations enforces the use of this information explicitly. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that meteorological agencies in these and other countries around the world have institutionalized the use of space-based data and information gathered from meteorological satellites through specific institutional policies.

While access to space-based data and imagery follows similar patterns in these four countries, the use of such data and imagery targeting disaster-risk management and emergency response varies from country to country. All of these countries are aware of the service provided by the International Charter Space and Major Disasters (Charter) and have benefited from its products on various occasions.

Spatial Data Infrastructures

In addition and recognizing the value of space-based data for a variety of purposes, all these countries are embarking on the establishment of National Spatial Database Infrastructures (NSDIs) as a means for institutions to share and exchange information. In most cases, such NSDIs have been established by the National Planning Agencies, given their strategic role in coordinating activities conducted by all government agencies. In Guatemala, the General Secretariat for Planning and Programming of the Presidency (SEGEPLAN) has not only aims at establishing the NSDI, but plays a critical role in making use of space-based information to track the impacts of recent disasters as tropical storm Stan in 2005, and most recently the tropical storm Agatha in 2010; and to develop the National Territorial Planning System (6).

In the case of Ecuador, the National Secretariat for Development Planning (SENPLADES) is establishing the NSDI and has also established the National Geo-Informatics Council (CONAGE) as an inter-institutional mechanism to ensure that the proposed aims of the NSDI are reached (7). As it is stated in the Executive Decree No. 2250 of 2004 (8), the State of Ecuador recognizes “the need to promote the integration of producers and users of geographic information as a pillar to support social and economic activities, and to promote sustainable and integral development of the country”. In addition, SENPLADES is also in charge of the National Territorial Information System. In the context of satellite imagery, SENPLADES sees the utility of the NSDI as a strategy to elaborate the national inventory of satellite imagery, which aims to avoid duplication in the purchase of imagery by different government agencies.

In Jamaica, the Spatial Data Management Division (SDMD) in recent years has been working towards the establishment of the NSDI, and also contributes with ODPEM in case of disasters. The Division was originally established by the Land Information Council of Jamaica, but recently it was moved to the Office of the Prime Minister given its strategic relevance concerning planning efforts. A parallel effort is being conducted by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) through the elaboration of the National Spatial Plan, which targets the development of an inventory of existing geo-spatial data to determine how it has been used and to detect existing gaps.

In the Dominican Republic, efforts to establish such a NSDI are still in an embryonic stage at the time this article is being written. Nevertheless, many agencies share the view concerning the benefits that an NSDI would bring in terms of facilitating the exchange and sharing of information.

Strategies and policies targeting the training of staff

Two key issues to consider when it comes to using space-based information in disaster-risk management and emergency response activities are the knowledge and the skills of staff who are responsible for the generation of information using ground- and space-based data. Taking into consideration the fast pace of advances regarding information technologies, UN-SPIDER recognizes the relevance of institutional policies and strategies targeting the continuous training of staff, so that institutions can continue to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
A review of the respective legislation in these four countries allows UN-SPIDER to conclude that several countries do recognize the need for training. In the National Law 147-02, the State of the Dominican Republic recognized that “despite the fact that for several years disaster response organizations have promoted training initiatives to improve emergency response capacities, today it is necessary to conduct a permanent training programme on integral risk management through instruments previously elaborated with the support of diverse agencies targeting the municipal, provincial, and national levels”. To this end, this national law instructs the National System for Prevention, Mitigation, and Disaster Response to develop a training system on risk management targeting staff of the government and communities; and to strengthen institutional capacities on this topic at the provincial and municipal levels.

In the case of Jamaica, the Act of 1993 recognized the need for ODPEM to provide training programmes in all aspects of disaster preparedness, mitigation, loss reduction, and disaster management. Furthermore, the National Land Policy enacted in 1996 also recognized the need for ongoing training in geographic information systems to be maintained and institutionalized in the curriculum at the Management Institute for National Development, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Technology. In a similar fashion, the Jamaica Water Sector Policy recognized the need for capacity strengthening for effective, efficient, and equitable solutions to the challenges of water resource management and development.

However, when it comes to the implementation level, it is Ecuador, which has the lead through CLIRSEN that has now established its second training center in Guayaquil to fill the demand there. Taking into consideration its Mandate, its Mission, and its Vision (9), CLIRSEN has established 3 strategies:

  • To facilitate access to satellite images as an intermediary between space agencies, which produce such images and the end user who needs them.
  • To conduct research and to provide technical assistance to institutions on the use of this type of information.
  • To train staff in all aspects related to this type of information (access, processing, and use).

CLIRSEN is cooperating with the National Secretariat on Risk Management and with other agencies in the use of space-based information to generate information on hazards and risks in case of floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.

Detecting the institutionalization process in a developing country

While the evolution regarding the use of information has been somewhat different in every country, Guatemala presents an interesting case from which many conclusions can be drawn that are representative of trends in other developing countries. Guatemala, like other countries, is exposed to a variety of hazards such as earthquakes, floods, and landslides. Between 1969 and 1996 the national policy on the issue of disasters was focused on response, and so the National Emergency Committee (CONE) was established in 1969. By the late 1980s, computers began to be used for managerial processes in CONE, but there was no institutional policy on the use of geo-spatial information for such purposes. Between 1990 and 1995, there was one staff member who was assigned to provide maintenance to PCs. Between 1995 and 1998, an Army Officer assigned to CONE took interest on GIS, but the use of such systems was not institutionalized yet.

Between 1992 and 2003, various regional and international initiatives conducted by the Central American Coordination Center for Natural Disaster Prevention (CEPREDENAC), ITC in the Netherlands in conjunction with UNESCO, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) focused on enhancing the skills of staff on the use of GIS. An initial project was conducted by CEPREDENAC between 1992 and 1994, focusing on the training of one staff per country on the use of GIS. Soon after hurricane Mitch at the end of 1998, both ITC/UNESCO and USGS launched regional projects again targeting the training of staff on the use of GIS in government institutions devoted to risk management and emergency response.

In December of 1996, the Congress of Guatemala enacted the National Decree-Law No. 109-96, transforming CONE into CONRED. The institutional transition from CONE to CONRED took slightly over two years to be completed and was accompanied by a change in the leadership within the institution, and by 2001 the new Executive Director of CONRED officially established an information management unit, which included one staff member dedicated to GIS tasks. By 2008, a GIS sub-unit was established within the National Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and is staffed on a 24/7 basis by staff with skills on the use of GIS to generate maps visualizing the impacts of disasters and any other pertinent information. The process of institutionalization is shown in figure 1.



It should be stated that in Jamaica, Ecuador, and Dominican Republic, disaster-risk or civil protection agencies are also using GIS on an institutional basis, and in the corresponding EOCs as well. And with the support of UN-SPIDER, these and other countries are gradually incorporating the use of space-based information in a complementary fashion.

The Role of UN-SPIDER in promoting the use of space-based information

As it has been stated in the introduction, UN-SPIDER has been established to promote the use of all types of space-based information to support the full disaster management cycle. To achieve this goal, UN-SPIDER is promoting the institutionalization of the use of such information in these countries. The first step along these lines is the conduction of a Technical Advisory Mission that aims to identify strengths and weaknesses. Such missions have already been conducted in these four countries and allow UN-SPIDER to identify whether policy-relevant advice is needed, or whether the need is already more in terms of strategies or activities targeting training or institutional support.

In the coming years, UN-SPIDER will provide technical advisory support to these and other countries around the world, which have already officially requested such support. Efforts in Africa are now focusing on Western and Central African countries; and there is a similar approach in Small Island Developing States in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. In all cases, the conduction of the Technical Advisory Missions allows UN-SPIDER to tailor its capacity building efforts so that these countries can begin to take advantage of emerging opportunities concerning space-based information.


The use of space-based information is still evolving in many developing countries. However, policies embedded in the new legislation in many of these countries are promoting both the generation and dissemination of information. And while the use of space-based information is not mentioned explicitly, it is important to recognize that there are no restrictions for its use in such policies either.

A review of policies on the generation and use of information in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Jamaica; and the recent establishment of geographic information units in agencies responsible for disaster-risk management and emergency response in these countries leads to the conclusion that the use of this type of information is being recognized by decision makers, and is paving the way for its corresponding institutionalization.

So far, all of these countries have made use of space-based information in the case of disasters through support delivered by the Charter. But it must be stressed that Ecuador has been able to take advantage of space-based information through CLIRSEN. Being a local institution, CLIRSEN facilitates access to space-base information, the training of staff, and can support in the generation of useful information based on satellite imagery. In addition, it is also important to highlight the fact that the use of space-based information began in these and other countries more in the area of environmental protection, particularly in the context of protected areas and natural resources.

It is expected that through the efforts conducted by UN-SPIDER and other regional and international organizations, countries like Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica can follow on the footsteps of Ecuador and take advantage of the opportunities that are available regarding space-based information.


  1. Ref.: A/AC.105/937; pages 3-6
  2. See:
  3. Ref.: Asamblea Constituyente de la República del Ecuador. Constitución 2008. Available in:
  4. Ref: Congreso Nacional Presidencia de la Republica Dominicana. Ley Nacional 147-02. Available in:
  5. Congreso de la República de Guatemala, Decreto Legislativo 109-96. Available in:
  6. Available in:
  7. Decreto Ejecutivo No. 2250 published in Registro Oficial Nº 466 on 22 November 2004 , available in:
  8. Available in:
  9. See: