Interview with Dr Rob Adam
Dr Rob Adam is Director-General of the South African Department of Science and Technology and Co-Chair of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO).
Have the objectives set at the first Earth Observation Summit (Washington, DC, July 2003) been achieved?
In February 2005, at the Third Earth Observation Summit, representatives from almost 60 countries adopted the Ten-year Implementation Plan for the creation of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), as was originally envisioned at the Washington Summit. Today, we have a permanent, functional GEO Secretariat, working under the leadership of its new Director, Dr José Achache, to prepare the first GEOSS work plans. These will realize the objectives of the Implementation Plan.
From a purely institutional perspective, the progress made by GEO within a relatively short time has been quite remarkable. It is an achievement which would not have been possible without the considerable investment and support from all involved, most notably the original Ad Hoc GEO Co-Chairs, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher (USA), Dr Achilleas Mitsos (European Commission) and Deputy Minister Akio Yukio (and later Deputy Minister Tetsuhisa Shirakawa) (Japan). Apart from GEO’s own institutional advancement, the partnership did much to raise the profile of Earth observation as a key instrument in support of sustainable development within broader international debate.
How relevant is GEO to sustainable development?
GEO’s efforts are ultimately focused on achieving global sustainable development. The commitments made by world leaders in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002 with regard to Earth observation informed, in a very tangible manner, the contents of the GEOSS Ten-year Implementation Plan. As we enter the GEOSS implementation phase, it is important that our efforts continue to be informed and are indeed aligned with other relevant global initiatives, for example the work of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.
The credo of the WSSD was “People, planet and prosperity”. It is also an appropriate leitmotiv for GEOSS. We are seeking to harness the potential of Earth observation to alleviate poverty and human suffering, whilst boosting environmental protection.
Are GEO’s objectives being translated in a concrete manner into Earth observation activities at national, regional level global levels?
It is essential that enhanced Earth observation activities are encouraged at global, regional, national and even local levels. Global, regional and national programmes should ultimately provide the solid foundation upon which global initiatives such as GEOSS are constructed. With regard to global activities, GEO is very appreciative of the formal commitment made by WMO Members for its integrated observing system to serve as part of GEOSS. The WMO integrated observing system will be one of the core contributors to GEOSS. The GEOSS challenge is to promote other core contributors and integrate them into an interoperable system of systems. There is also new energy around regional Earth observation initiatives, steered, for example, by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites and the Integrated Global Observing Strategy. Many GEO member countries have started to gear their national programmes to better serve GEOSS. for example in Canada and the USA.
In South Africa, our participation in GEO has stimulated development the first comprehensive national Earth observation strategy-the South African Earth Observation Strategy (SAEOS)-which is currently underway. We see SAEOS as a platform to ensure our optimal contribution to GEOSS.
Natural disasters continue to cause human suffering worldwide. Can GEOSS make a difference?
If we don't make a difference, we will have failed in our task. The reduction of loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters is one area where GEOSS can—and should—deliver specific benefits to society. Successful implementation of GEOSS will enable more timely dissemination of information through better coordinated and integrated monitoring, predicting, risk assessment and early warning systems. GEOSS advice will inform decision-making and enable early and appropriate responses to disasters worldwide. The challenge is a comprehensive one but the desire to meaningfully mitigate the impact of disasters will continue to motivate us.
Specific progress is already being made with the constitution of a special GEO Tsunami Working Group. The focus will be on the value GEO can add to existing work being done, in the case of tsunamis, by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC of UNESCO) as lead and with the strong support of WMO and its other partner organizations. In the area of disasters, I see GEO’s chief contribution in the expansion of multi-hazard observation capacities, in line with the integrative philosophy of GEOSS, in support of, and aligned with, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in which WMO and other organizations participating in GEO play key roles.
What about GEOSS support for economic growth?
The Ten-year Implementation Plan identifies nine initial areas where GEOSS will enhance the delivery of benefits to society aÏs part of the broader objective to promote sustainable development. There is no hierarchy among these areas, nor is the list exclusive. It is a means for us to focus our efforts and ensure a concrete impact in response to society’s needs.
Identifying and meeting users’ needs underpin the whole GEOSS approach. The realization of GEOSS objectives in areas such as improving the management of energy resources, sustaining sustainable agriculture and enhancing weather information will find direct application in the economic sphere and support sustainable economic growth. In the case of rural farming communities in the developing world, for example, it will contribute directly to poverty alleviation.
The stimulation of economic growth is as dependent on scientifically informed decision-making as environmental protection, for example. Earth observation is a critical catalyst to ensure a holistic assessment within the spirit of sustainable development. GEOSS outreach efforts should, thus, also include industry.
How do you see the role of GEOSS in multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)?
International bodies tasked with assisting implementation of multilateral environmental agreements will derive significant benefit from GEOSS. Improved observations of ecosystems, for example, will provide invaluable support to the work of decision-makers in global natural resource management forums.
The international response to global environmental change and the work of policy-makers in this regard, within the context of, say, the Convention to Combat Desertification, will also be able to draw on GEOSS-enabled scientific advice for decision-making. The work of GEO will, in turn, also be influenced by MEAs, such as evidenced by the adoption of an “ecosystems approach”.This is an integrated approach, which takes into account the total impact of human activities on terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems.
Could GEOSS significantly advance the role of Earth observations in support of public health strategies?
Failure to establish and adhere to interoperability standards could significantly hamper the achievement of GEOSS objectives in the area of health. It should be borne in mind that, as opposed to an area such as weather, the definition of Earth observation user requirements for health is still relatively immature. GEOSS should, therefore, assist the health community to better define its Earth observation requirements. This will lead to better use of existing data, followed by the development of new coordinated observation systems and synthesis products. The goal is for GEOSS to bring useful environmental data to the health community in a user-friendly form, supporting predictive and preventive public health activities.
Do outreach activities to broaden the GEO membership remain a priority?
Outreach remains an essential component of GEO activities. Indeed, it was GEO’s unique international partnership nature, harnessing the collective efforts and ambitions of a diverse group of countries and organizations around specific objectives, which enabled our initial success. To continue our progression, it is vital that we sustain and cement the partnership, whilst broadening it to include new members and participants. The objective, however, is not merely to increase membership but to increase significantly awareness of the benefits of Earth observations, especially among users, beneficiaries and sponsors of relevant systems.
How will GEOSS capacity-building objectives be best achieved?
Firstly, GEOSS actions will, in the first instance, build on existing national, regional and global capacity-building initiatives. Secondly, the Ten-year Implementation Plan embraces the concept of a global partnership of those whose capacity needs developing and those who are able to assist in that process. It recognizes that activities have intertwined social, environmental and economic impacts. The most efficient means to improve the geographic coverage of the Earth observing system is to encourage wider participation of all countries, many of which have observation capacities which are severely lacking. A specific, concerted and essential focus will be necessary to address this important challenge. Capacity-building should nevertheless also be seen as a cross-cutting theme, central to all aspects of GEOSS activities.
GEO will need to mobilize financial resources, especially with regard to enhancing observation capacities. How do you view this challenge?
Although the cost of implementing GEOSS will be significant, only limited resources will need to be provided specifically through GEO. Most of the resources needed will be provided through existing national and international mechanisms and by voluntary contributions to special projects. It is clear, however, that new resources not dedicated to existing programmes or ad hoc projects, will be required for deployment through the GEO Trust Fund in support of GEOSS activities.
It is incumbent on the GEO Executive Committee to play an advocacy role in mobilizing voluntary funding. The amounts required are extremely small when considered globally, probably less than US$ 10 million a year, but the smooth implementation of GEOSS is crucially dependent on this funding being made regularly available. Previous international cooperative efforts in this same field have seen their progress severely hampered by lack of basic funding.
The case for GEOSS is a compelling one and important contributions have already been made to the Trust Fund. For example, the European Commission provided the Secretariat with a solid base on which to start its operations. An important focus of advocacy activities will be greater international investments to support Earth observation capacity-building in developing countries. Such investments will be consistent with the recognition that science and technology are instruments and not rewards for development.
Are the contributions of developing countries important for the global exchange of data and information?
The full participation of developing countries is essential for GEOSS to achieve its objectives with a truly global scope. ScienÏtists in developing countries have a rich knowledge pool to contribute to the GEOSS effort, which will significantly enhance our understanding of Earth processes. The challenges facing our planet are global. Addressing them adequately will require a global perspective and a global network of capacities, involving the full participation of developing countries.
Do you see the role of GEOSS in enabling scientifically informed policy- and decision-making for sustainable development as being at the heart of its efforts?
The vision for GEOSS is to realize a future wherein decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations and information. The development and availability of enhanced decision-support tools and systems to ensure the realization of benefits in the identified societal benefit areas are not merely at the heart of the GEO agenda—they are its raison d’être.
In conclusion, what do you view as the most pressing priorities that GEO should address in the coming months?
The second GEO plenary to be held in Geneva in December 2005 will be an important milestone. Our partnership will be tasked with adopting the work plans, currently being prepared by the Secretariat and teams of experts, which will inform the Ten-year Implementation Plan in 2006. After intergovernmental negotiations, we are now firmly involved with the business end of GEOSS. Members and participating organizations’ optimal input to, support for, and commitment to, these processes are essential. Adopting the Implementation Plan was a first achievement. Concomitant with our ownership and celebration of the Plan, however, is our responsibility to make GEOSS work. I have no doubt our partnership will be equal to the task.
In conclusion, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for WMO’s outstanding contribution to, and support for, GEO since the Washington Summit. WMO experts have played an invaluable role in the development of the Ten Year Plan and the Organization’s contributions to outreach and awareness-raising have been considerable. I was honoured to officiate at the inauguration in May 2005 of the GEO Secretariat at WMO Headquarters—a most appropriate home for the location of the GEOSS nerve centre.