The European Space Agency and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s)

By Johann-Dietrich WörnerDirector General, European Space Agency 

What do space and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have in common? What they have in common may be as remote as outer space but several examples illustrate the opposite. Space does matter for the SDGs. Since its creation in 1975, the European Space Agency (ESA) has developed a wide range of space programmes that provide useful contributions for sustainable development. And this is becoming even clearer now with the 2015 adoption of the SDGs  [1]. Consider just a few examples related to some of the 17 SDGs:

SDG 2 calls for zero hunger. Managing the health of livestock is one path to that goal. ESA co-founded the VGTropics project, an information system to manage animal health data in data-sparse environments, such as developing countries in Africa. Livestock survey planning, livestock distribution, data analysis and syndromic surveillance are all supported and facilitated by a satellite network, including satellite navigation, GPS units, satellite-based telecommunication services and satellite-Earth observation. Thus, VGTropics works to offset weak capacity in some African countries to conduct diagnostics and gather coordinated information. The commercialisation of VGTropics started at the end of 2015.

SDG 3 promotes good health and well-being. Part of this is fighting the health epidemic unleashed by Ebola. During the Ebola crisis, ESA supported laboratories by providing them with satellite data thanks to an inflatable satellite antenna. This technology facilitated rapid and reliable diagnosis. The so-called B-Life system, developed within ESA’s ARTES Integrated Applications Promotions programme, was used to support the Ebola treatment centre in N’Zerekore, a remote area of Guinea. B-Life enabled collaboration in real time between the on-the-ground emergency team and St Luc’s Hospital in Belgium, allowing for treatment plans to be modified as patient blood samples were analysed. In December 2014, the B-Life service was registered as part of the European Emergency Capacity Response within the European Mechanism for Civil Protection managed by the European Commission.

SDG 4 focuses on quality education. One way ESA promotes this goal is through satellite-enabled links to rural schools in South Africa and Italy. ESA supports a project that will change positively the situation of remote rural schools. In partnership with Luxembourg’s satellite broadband operator SESTechcom Services, ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunication Systems Programme and Openet Technologies unveiled Satellite Way for Education (Sway4edu2) to guarantee Internet access for rural schools in South Africa and Italy that have been equipped with satellite terminals and other required materials. Such Internet-based eLearning for teachers and students fosters cultural integration among schoolchildren, boosts language learning and raises environmental awareness thanks to specific courses on local wildlife heritage and sustainable approaches to daily living.

SDG 6 supports clean water and sanitation. In 2002, ESA worked with UNESCO to launch the TIGER initiative to use Earth observation (EO) technology for improved integrated water resources management in Africa. Exploiting EO technology fills existing information gaps for effective and sustainable water resources management at national to regional scales. Guided by its own international Steering Committee, TIGER received the endorsement of the African Ministerial Council on Water. Now, the TIGER initiative aims particularly at supporting capacity-building activities and development projects in some 42 African countries. Delegates from 19 African and 10 European countries participated in TIGER’s 2016 workshop held in Addis Ababa.

In these and more ways, identifying how we could better support and contribute to sustainable development requires working alongside those who are implementing measures and assessing progress towards the SDGs. Obviously, sustainable development concerns all of us. As a responsible international organisation, ESA uses its technology for humankind’s development. Tackling societal challenges is one of our priorities. What we need to do now is further awareness of the potential of our programmes, be they related to Earth observation, satellite telecommunications, navigation, human spaceflight or technology, to help accomplish the SDGs. We know we can do much more than what we are doing today, and we are ready for that greater role.

[1] View a full list of examples linked to each SDG here.



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