Monitoring and mapping the conflict in Iraq through satellite imagery

05 February 2019

Monitoring the evolution of wars and conflicts, the damage they produce on different aspects such as the environment, heritage sites and infrastructures, as well as the extent of the humanitarian crisis they lead to, can be a complicated task given the danger that being on site poses. Satellite imagery is a key source of information to both monitor and map a conflict’s evolution and impact without the risks and costs associated with having people on site. It allows to capture reliable imagery and ensures accurate and timely monitoring over sites located in areas affected by ongoing threats, where it’s difficult to get up to date information and to verify potential damages otherwise. Deimos Imaging, a subsidiary of the Canadian UrtheCast Corp., is a Spanish Earth Observation company that has been monitoring and mapping the conflict in and around Mosul since its beginning using its two satellites: the Medium Resolution Deimos-1 and the Very-High Resolution Deimos-2.

In this study, a synergistic tipping and queuing has been carried out, collecting information and coordinating activities between Deimos Imaging’s sensors. Thanks to its wide swath and high revisit time, Deimos-1 spotted where the main developments were going on in Mosul and its surroundings; then, this information was used to task the very-high-resolution Deimos-2, over the identified areas to get much more detailed imagery. The ability to record a sequence of images over time at different spatial resolution and the utilization of the tipping and queuing technique, enabled to track and capture the most relevant developments of Mosul’s conflict and its dynamics, both in context and in detail. Moreover, the expansion of refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps, such as the one of Hammam al-Alil located 25 km south of Mosul was monitored, as well as the evolution of the oil fires in Qayyarah and the changes in the agricultural production in the Nineveh region.

Thus, Deimos Imaging’s imagery helped on the assessment of the humanitarian, economic and environmental impact of this conflict, providing data to decision makers in a wide range of areas, from NGOs and international organizations to local institutions promoting precision agriculture for the country’s post-conflict recovery.

Deimos-2 to analyze and quantify infrastructure damages

On October 17, 2016, Iraqi security forces, launched a major offensive to recapture Mosul, IS last major stronghold in Iraq. During the offensive, multiple churches, mosques and shrines, dozens of antiquities in the Mosul Museum and great parts of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh were destroyed. Moreover, the city’s infrastructures have been severely damaged by both sides of the conflict. Deimos-2 imagery was used to identify and assess the damages occurred during the conflict in the city’s main infrastructures such as the city’s airport and bridges. For this purpose, a pre-event and post-event change detection analysis has been carried out, revealing extensive damages . The analysis of the Deimos-2 high-resolution image captured on February 19, 2017 allowed to identify razed buildings and rubble placed along Mosul airport’s runaway, and the image captured on March 10, 2017 shows the suspended bridges to impede crossing from East to West Mosul. These data are also useful in a post-conflict scenario to quantify damages on infrastructures, thus being a key tool to support long-term reconstruction programs. In addition, archive imagery is being continuously updated with fresh images, crucial in areas affected by ongoing conflicts, where it’s difficult to get up to date and verified information, without the risk related to having people on-site.

The humanitarian impact and the refugee camp of Hammam Al-Alil

Satellite imagery also plays an increasingly important role in monitoring and measuring humanitarian crisis. It serves to support decision making and manage humanitarian aid and response through, for instance, the monitorization of changes in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. Deimos-2 data helped to detect the evolution of the refugee camp at Hammam Al-Alil, around 25 km south of Mosul.  The multitemporal analysis of Deimos-2 imagery provided reliable information to measure the camp’s growth and density over time, allowing to have an estimation of the population sheltered there. Accurate multitemporal analysis showed that the number of tents increased from 3,738 on February 19, 2017, to 8,136 on April 22, 2017. Therefore, the camp grew by a 54 per cent during just 2 months. Given that, in average, 6 persons are accommodated in each tent, the amount of people hosted in the camp incremented from around 22.500 to almost 50.000 from February 19 to April 22.

The image captured on April 22 also shows a part of the camp still under construction, which allows to forecast a future occupancy of almost 56000 person, a number that matches the capacity expectations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) responsible of managing and developing this camp.

Satellite imagery to identify pollution sources and environmental damages

From August 2016 to April 2017, several fires burned in the oil field of Qayyarah, around 60 km south of Mosul. Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 together with other satellite imagery, allowed Wim Zwijnenburg, Project Leader at the non-profit, non-governmental organization PAX, to identify different pollution sources. “As PAX’s core goal is to protect civilians, knowing what is happening on the ground during a conflict proves to be very difficult if you don’t have access to area. This goes for all our programs, be it monitoring the use of weapons, civilian harm tracking, to my area of expertise, the monitoring of the impact of conflict on the environment and related human health risks. Analysis of satellite imagery from Deimos Imaging and UNOSAT allowed us to track the problems with the oil wells in Qayyarah, and to identify attacks and damages to industrial sites in and around Mosul zones in Iraq. We applied similar approaches to monitor the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Libya and we used this information to support public advocacy and send out public alerts about the risks of chemical incidents and/or long-term environmental pollution that can lead to acute or chronic health problems for civilians and their communities”, he stated. Deimos-2 carefully calibrated and radiometrically corrected products, accurately orthorectified and resampled to a map grid, were key to detect and exactly locate the oil fires before ground assessment could verify the information. The images  were created combining red, green and near-infrared bands to show active fires (bright red and yellow) and smoke (black). The vegetation is pictured in red in these false-color images acquired on October (Deimos 2) and November (Deimos-1) 2016.

Assessing the impact of Iraq’s conflict on agriculture

The Nineveh province was once Iraq’s breadbasket, accounting for almost half of the country’s overall wheat supply. However, the on-going conflict is jeopardizing the agricultural production mainly in the regions of the Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahuddin governorates in Iraq. Deimos Imaging tasked both Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 satellites on the Nineveh Governorate in Iraq. Deimos-1 (R, G, NIR) and Deimos-2 (R, G, B, NIR) bands have been especially designed for vegetation monitoring.  In particular, they provide analytic- ready imagery supplying the information needed for vegetation indices calculations. Vegetation indices provides an indication for the relative density and health of vegetation for each pixel of Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 imagery. In addition, our satellites high temporal resolution capacity ensures to acquire data systematically, enabling consistent monitoring and analysis. In general, the high frequency and high resolution data supplied by Deimos Imaging can be used to supply a powerful operational service for precision agriculture with an accurate multitemporal overlay at pixel level. This can empower the precision agriculture users at different stages: planning; in-season practices and yield. 

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