Science - February 17, 2005

Help for tsunami disaster areas

Interpreting satellite images, support to the reconstruction plans and the already promised student grants are the contributions Wageningen UR wants to make to the long-term recovery of the areas hit by the tsunami in Asia.

Wageningen UR is investing about half a million euros in education and research for the disaster area. The lion’s portion of this money will go towards ten grants for MSc students from the countries hit. These were promised immediately following the disaster. The new plans include a pilot project in which satellite images are used to assess the damage caused by the flood wave. Wageningen UR bought detailed satellite images of an 11km2 area in Aceh. Dr Aart Schrevel of Alterra and Professor Michael Schaepman of the sub-department of Environmental Sciences are now interpreting the images.
Schrevel: ‘We have high-resolution images, from which we can analyse the enormous damage to infrastructure, but also to land use, for instance as a result of sediment or salt. After we have done this we can indicate where reconstruction should start first. This should be in the areas with the least damage so that recovery is quickest and the population is no longer dependent on outside help as soon as possible.’
The knowledge acquired can also contribute to the reconstruction plans that the Indonesian ministry of planning is compiling together with FAO and UNEP. Schrevel will travel to Jakarta himself soon to discuss the value of the satellite image interpretations with the Indonesian planners. He expects that the pilot study will have consequences. Schrevel: ‘The damage is enormous. Reconstruction will take years.’
Wageningen UR also wants to make more general contributions to the reconstruction planning process and is compiling a catalogue of relevant expertise available. Dr Bram Huijsman, director of the North-South Centre and IAC, and now also chairman of the Wageningen UR ‘tsunami taskforce’, indicates that Wageningen UR will collaborate closely in this with Dutch embassies in the countries involved, FAO and Dutch partners in the water sector. The latter are grouped together in the Netherlands Water Partnership, which has set up a ‘tsunami work group’. Within this, Wageningen is leader for the cooperation concerning agricultural areas affected.
In addition to the direct costs of the study grants and the purchase of the satellite images, Wageningen UR’s main contribution is in man-hours. People like Huijsman and Schrevel are doing this work in addition to their usual jobs. The other side of the coin is that in the long term, research funding bodies are likely to release more money for issues such as coastal management, as the tsunami has shown how important that can be. By investing now in these developments, Wageningen UR will be able to play a role in the future. / JT