20 October 2009
General Assembly
GA/SPD/432

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fourth General Assembly

Fourth Committee

12th Meeting (PM)


Fourth Committee, Taking Up Outer Space Item, Hears Space Technology Could Combat,


Even Forecast, Spread of Disease, Ensuring Health of Current, Future Generations


Disease Outbreaks Could Destabilize Nations, Regions, Undermine Confidence

In Governments, Affect Donor Strategies, Lead to Civil Strife, Panellists Say


Space technology applications to combat and even forecast the spread of disease were fundamental instruments in ensuring the health of current and future generations -– one of the major challenges to meeting the Millennium Development Goals –- the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) was told today, as it began its consideration of international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.


Making introductory remarks in a panel discussion on “Space for global health -- Space technology and pandemics”, the Chairman of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Ciro Arévalo Yepes, emphasized that climate change, disasters, the lack of food security and the economic crisis all risked investment, progress and achievements made so far in moving towards sustainable health for all, in particular for the poor and vulnerable.  There was a need for enhanced capacity-building and for regional and interregional cooperation and coordination to overcome the duplication of efforts and to bring all stakeholders together -– decision-makers, the scientific community and, most importantly, the “user” community, especially those affected by disease and pandemics.


He pointed to the use of satellite remote sensing, global navigation satellite systems, and geographic information systems as facilitating integration of ecological, environmental and other data to predict the spread of the approximately 1,400 infectious diseases in the world -- some of which were the main causes of mortality in developing countries.  Next to malaria, water-borne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea were the major contributing factors of morbidity and mortality in the developing world, and there was a major correlation between incidents of water-borne diseases and environmental and climatic variables, he noted.


Stressing that it would be “extremely naïve and complacent” to assume that there would not be, sooner or later, another disease like AIDS, another Ebola or another SARS, panellist Juli Trtanj, Program Director of the Oceans and Human Health Initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States, said that the sharing of medical data, skills and technology between rich and poor nations was one of the most feasible routes to health security.


Disease outbreaks could destabilize nations and regions, and, if severe enough, could result in a loss of confidence in Governments, affect donor strategies and, ultimately, lead to civil strife, she said.  Using information to develop tools that resulted in lead-time was important, and any action necessitated the involvement of all actors concerned to begin thinking more collectively about interaction across communities.


A third panellist, Mazlan Othman, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, stressed that, while the impact of climate change, and that of many of its effects, such as drought and flood, brought about a “wide array of emergencies”, all of those things were made worse if diseases were involved.  Infectious-disease control was a prerequisite to eliminating poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals, since the issues of child mortality, maternal health, and HIV/AIDS were all affected by infectious diseases.


Earth-observing satellites provided a transnational picture of vector-borne diseases, irrespective of national frontiers, she said.  Space-based data also helped scientists to predict high-risk areas before outbreaks occurred, and new satellite platforms resulted in a better idea of risk factors and allowed experts to make more informed decisions.


The representatives of Chile and Brazil participated in a brief discussion following the panelists’ statements.


The report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was introduced by Mr. Arévalo Yepes.


The Fourth Committee Chairman made an introductory statement before the panel discussion.


The Fourth Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 October, to begin its general debate on international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space.


Background


As it began its consideration of international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space,the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) was also expected to hold a panel discussion on “Space for global health –– Space technology and pandemics”, for whichit had before it the report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (document A/64/20).


The report summarizes the outcome of its fifty-second session, held in Vienna from 3 to 12 June, during which the Committee discussed ways and means of maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes; implementation of the recommendations of the Third United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE III); spin-off benefits of space technology; space and society; space and water; space and climate change; and international cooperation in promoting the use of space-derived geospatial data for sustainable development.


According to the report, the Committee also discussed the report of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee on its forty-sixth session and of the Legal Subcommittee on its forty-eighth.  The Committee expressed satisfaction that the General Assembly had agreed on the Committee’s continued consideration of ways to promote regional and interregional cooperation based on experiences stemming from the Space Conference of the Americas, the African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development, and the role that space technology could play in the implementation of the recommendations of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.


The Committee, through its work in the scientific, technical and legal fields, had a fundamental role to play in ensuring that outer space was maintained for peaceful purposes. That role could be strengthened by new initiatives, as well as by continued progress in implementing the recommendations of UNISPACE III.  The Committee noted the important role played by conferences and initiatives in promoting regional and international partnerships among States, such as the upcoming 2010 International Air and Space Fair in Santiago, to be held in Santiago in March 2010, and the third IAA (International Academy of Astronautics) African Regional Conference, to be held in Abuja from 24 to 26 November.


Some delegations, the report finds, were of the view that provisions of international space law had to be improved in order to effectively respond to challenges posed by a number of problems of contemporary space activities, such as the absence of a definition and delimitation of outer space, the use of nuclear power sources in outer space, and the threat posed by space debris.  Those delegations were of the view that the improvement of international space law would also ensure that outer space was used exclusively for peaceful purposes.


The Committee noted the project of the European Union to adopt a code of conduct for outer space activities.  The draft text, which had been approved by the Council of the European Union in December 2008, included transparency and confidence-building measures and reflected a comprehensive approach to safety and security in outer space.  The Committee also noted that consultations with space-faring countries were under way, with a view to reaching consensus on a text that would be acceptable to the greatest possible number of States.  The Committee further noted that, following the conclusion of those consultations, an ad hoc conference would be organized for States to subscribe the code.


The Scientific and Technical Subcommittee reported the results of its forty-fifth session, during which it considered the activities of the United Nations Programme on Space Applications. Other areas it had addressed included:  international space information services; regional and interregional cooperation;international satellite system for search and rescue;matters relating to remote sensing of the Earth by satellite; space debris; space-system-based disaster-management support; recent developments in global navigation satellite systems; use of nuclear power sources in outer space; issues relating to near-Earth objects; examination of the geostationary orbit; and International Geophysical and Heliophysical Year 2007.


Turning to the Legal Subcommittee, the report saidthat it reviewed the status and application of the five United Nations treaties on outer space during its forty-eighth session.  It also considered information on the activities of international intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations relating to space law; matters regarding the definition and delimitation of outer space and the character of the geostationary orbit; the possible revision of the Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space; the preliminary draft protocol on matters specific to space assets to the Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment; and national mechanisms relating to space debris mitigation measures, among other topics.


In other matters discussed in the report, the Committee agreed that spin-offs of space technology should be promoted, because they advanced economies through the production of new innovative technologies, and contributed to the quality of human life.  It was further noted that space technologies were successfully utilized for the development of national communications infrastructures and other projects aimed at reaching sustainable development.


In its consideration of the item on space and society, the Committee focused its discussions on space and education, in accordance with the workplan adopted at its forty-sixth session in 2003.  The Committee agreed that sharing scientific and technical knowledge and achievements in the field of space activities would have a positive impact on future generations.  The Committee also focused on expanding space tools for education, and ensuring that space-based services contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals on access to education.  The view was expressed that consideration should be given to specific means of overcoming, including through the role of education, the potential shortage of scientists, mathematicians and engineers facing both developed and developing countries in the coming decade.


The report recalled that the Committee also took up the issue of space and water, and noted the broad spectrum of water-related issues, ranging from too little water, reducing populations and consequently food production, to too much water, causing floods and destruction.  The Committee noted the large number of space-borne platforms used to address water-related issues, including those at the planning and theoretical stages.  Data gathered by such platforms had great potential for expanding the use of applications of space technology to address water-related issues on Earth.  The Committee further noted that space technology could be used in combination with non-space technologies to contribute to monitoring and mitigating the effects of flood, drought and earthquake disasters and to improving the timeliness and accuracy of forecasts.


The report also recalled that the Committee also took up a new agenda item on space and climate change, and noted that the adverse effects of climate change constituted a threat to communities worldwide and were manifested through a variety of processes -– such as increasing global average temperature, sea-level rise, and the fragmentation and melting of the polar caps.  The Committee also noted that, given the global nature of climate change, global observations were required to monitor the phenomenon more precisely.  In that context, the Committee agreed that space-based observations complemented by ground-based observations were well suited to monitoring the different manifestations of climate change and the factors contributing to it.  Some delegations expressed the view that developing countries, which contributed the least to climate change, suffered the most its adverse effects and did not have the resources to cope with its impact and take the appropriate adaptation measures.  In that context, those delegations were of the view that the Committee should play a more proactive role in advocating the need to allocate resources to support developing countries.


The Committee also took up issues relating to the use of space technology in the United Nations system, noting various cooperation activities involving Member States and United Nations entities aimed at promoting capacity-building and the use of space technology and its applications.  The Committee also noted with satisfaction that the Secretariat continued to maintain a website on the coordination of outer space activities within the United Nations system (www.uncosa.unvienna.org).


Finally, the Committee turned to the role of international cooperation in promoting the use of space-derived geospatial data for sustainable development.  The Committee noted the importance of remote-sensing applications and spatial data infrastructures for decisions in the area of socio-economic and environmental management, which relied heavily on the availability of accurate data on natural resources and other geospatial data.  Poor-quality data collection, inappropriate organizational and management practices, including the lack of adequate infrastructure and skilled human resources, contributed to poor decision-making, which could have undesirable consequences, such as food insecurity, air and water pollution and environmental degradation.


Introduction of Panel Discussion


In introductory remarks, Committee Chairman NASSIR ABDULAZIZ AL-NASSER ( Qatar) said that the panel discussion, entitled “Space for global health -- Space technology and pandemics”, targeted a topic of major concern to everyone, as the area was of fundamental importance to current and future life on Earth.  There were truly interlinkages between health and other areas of major concern, such as climate change, food security and disaster management.  Those areas should be addressed in a holistic manner, and various tools for solutions should be considered.  Space technology applications provided one such tool-set of increasing importance in decision-making processes at all levels.


He noted that the panel discussion had been requested by the member States of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, based on a proposal by Chile.  It would include introductory remarks by Ciro Arévalo Yepes, Chairman of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, followed by presentations by Juli Trtanj, Program Director of the Oceans and Human Health Initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States, and Mazlan Othman, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.


The Chairman of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Mr. AREVALO YEPES, opened the discussion on international cooperation, by raising the issue of pandemics and space technologies.  He said there were approximately 1,400 infectious diseases in the world, some of which were the main causes of mortality in developing countries, and that “a full half” of the world’s population lived in infected areas.  Malaria alone infected 300 million people each year, triggering the death of at least 1 million.  Those figures were “quite stunning”.  Other vector- and water-borne diseases and epidemics, which were affected by climate and meteorological conditions, such as meningitis and cholera, caused serious disruptions to society and constituted a major burden on national health systems.


Further, he said that disaster-management agencies in many areas of the world had to adapt to an increasing number of natural disasters caused by flooding and drought.  The effects of global climate change would very likely compound the current situation.  Other disasters unleashed by various environmental situations, such as locust pests, were just another factor jeopardizing the food security of the world’s inhabitants.


The use of space technology applications to combat the spread of disease was gradually becoming an important tool, he said.  Satellite remote sensing, global navigation satellite systems, and geographic information systems made it easier to integrate ecological, environmental and other data to predict the spread of diseases.  Space technology was a fundamental instrument in forecasting the spread of such diseases.


Next to malaria, water-borne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea were the major contributing factors of morbidity and mortality in the developing world, he continued.  There was a “major correlation” between incidents of water-borne diseases and environmental and climatic variables.  Modern disaster prediction for water-borne diseases used satellite data, as well as demographic and epidemiological data, to forecast outbreaks of disease and, thus, allow health officials to adopt timely measures.


He said that ensuring the global health of current and future generations was one of the major challenges to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.


Climate change, disasters, the lack of food security and, just recently, the economic crisis all posed a risk that jeopardized investment, progress and achievements made so far in moving towards sustainable health for all, in particular, for the poor and vulnerable.


National and regional policies must be better articulated across all levels and sectors, he said, in order to take advantage of potential synergies.  There was a need for enhanced capacity-building and for regional and interregional cooperation and coordination to overcome the duplication of efforts and to bring all stakeholders together –- decision-makers, the scientific community, and most importantly the “user” community, especially those affected by disease and pandemics.


Ms. TRTANJ said that her agency dealt, in part, with many of the issues that had just been discussed.  Her presentation would cover the nature of public health threats, health early warning systems, examples of application of space-based technologies for public health, and some challenges for the future.


She said that the World Health Organization (WHO) had recently released a report, which said that, since the 1970s, 39 new diseases had developed and, in the last five years, more than 1,100 epidemics, including cholera, polio and bird flu, had been identified.  It would be extremely naïve and complacent to assume that there would not be another disease like AIDS, another Ebola or another SARS, sooner or later.  The sharing of medical data, skills and technology between rich and poor nations was one of the most feasible routes to health security, she said.


Disease outbreaks could destabilize nations and regions, by disrupting commerce and trade relations, among other things, she continued.  If severe enough, such outbreaks could lead to loss of confidence in the Government.  They could also affect donor strategies and, ultimately, lead to civil strife.  Her agency was looking at the environmental stressors from land and resource use, climate change, pollution, extreme events and disease outbreaks, invasive species, and natural conditions.  For example, was seafood safe to eat?  Was drinking water safe to drink?  Vibrio strains were the most common cause of seafood-borne disease and death, but there were problems identifying the strains and what could actually be done about them, because they were resistant to treatment.


She said that outbreaks could also affect recreation and tourism, and in the United States alone, there was strong concern about the number of beaches closed because of contamination.  There was also concern about a lot of fish and marine mammals dying off, as well as about some of the diseases being seen in the marine environment that affected humans.  For example, 60.3 per cent of emerging infectious disease events in humans was caused by zoonotic pathogens, and 71 per cent of those were from wildlife.  Also of concern were climate change and its possible multiple effects on health.


Her agency was responsible for predicting and understanding changes in the Earth’s environment, as well as for conserving and managing coastal and marine resources to meet the United States’ economic, social and environmental needs, she explained.  It had a long-standing role in climate and health, ocean and health, marine animal health, weather and climate prediction.  It also worked in partnership with such organizations as the WHO, UN-SPIDER, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), among others.  In today’s changing global environment, the agency dealt with such issues as building resilient communities and adaptive management strategies for people, economies and ecosystems.  How did we protect human health and well-being, and how could one get ahead of the curve?


A good start was by conversations, such as the one taking place today, she said, stressing the importance of using information to develop tools that led to lead time.  It was a “two-way street”, she said, stressing that any action necessitated the involvement of everyone in the room, as well as scientists and public health ministers, in order to understand the nature of a problem, define it properly, develop a suite of preventive tools, and a plan for the health impacts of a changing environment.  It was necessary to begin thinking more collectively about how to interact across communities and how to think of issues beyond our own discipline.


The end goal was to prevent, or sometimes just reduce, the diseases and health risks, she said.  As such, delegates in the room would have a say as to how that all moved forward and how they made a difference in the lives of their children and grandchildren.  The application of space-based observations presented opportunities to use common resources for a common good.  Such application also reduced regional vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic change; built national capacity and provided training; and empowered people, protected the environment, and saved resources, among other things.


Ms. OTHMAN said climate change played a major role in the spread of infectious diseases.  The impact of climate change, and that of many of its effects, such as drought and flood, brought about a “wide array of emergencies”, but all were made worse if diseases were involved to compound the problems.


Regarding the Millennium Development Goals, namely, Goals 4, 5 and 6, which were related to health, she said that a “vicious cycle” was in place, in which infectious diseases predominantly affected the poor and were a major cause of poverty.  Infectious disease control was a prerequisite, therefore, to eliminating poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals, since the issues of child mortality, maternal health, and HIV/AIDS all referred to and were affected by infectious diseases.


Speaking to the role of space science and technology, she said that Earth-observing satellites provided a transnational picture of vector-borne diseases, irrespective of national frontiers.  Space-based data also helped scientists predict high-risk areas before outbreaks occurred, and integrated data from Earth-observing, meteorological, and navigational satellites could track environmental changes and identify epidemic-prone areas.  Additionally, new satellite platforms had been deployed which were equipped with improved payloads, resulting in better spectral/spatial/temporal resolutions, providing a better picture of risk factors and allowing experts to make more informed decisions.


In the case of malaria, satellite data had also been used to measure temperature, humidity and vegetation, in order to estimate how many people were at risk.  That data was then combined with terrestrial and in situ data on selected rural villages to estimate how many villagers were in danger of infection.  Turning to the health-related activities of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, she drew attention to an array of meetings and programmes, including the pilot project “Telemedicine in the Reconstruction of Afghanistan” from 2006 and 2007, and the workshop on tele-epidemiology carried out in Cuba in 2008.  One project still in development was the “risk stratification” of Dengue Fever, carried out in Colombia.  The objective of that project was to identify suggested risk areas for Dengue transmission using high-resolution satellite images and to associate those suggested areas with other social and cultural factors.  The next phase of the project would seek to obtain high-resolution optical and satellite radar to identify those areas.


Turning to the establishment two years ago of the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER), she said that the programme served as a gateway to space information for disaster management support, as well as a bridge connecting the disaster management and space communities.  It also served to facilitate capacity-building and institutional strengthening.  The programme’s three-cornered concept included the UN-SPIDER team, which resided in Vienna, Bonn, and soon to be in Beijing; a network of regional offices; and the national focal points.  Right now, those included offices in Japan, Nigeria and Iran, with an office set to open in Algeria, as well.  Tomorrow, 21 October, would be the first day of the Third United Nations International UN-SPIDER Bonn Workshop “Disaster Management and Space Technology”.


The UN-SPIDER was also conducting a technical advisory mission in Burkina Faso, where a discussion took place on locust control, she said, adding that a similar mission had also been carried out in Namibia.  It had included national capacity-building measures and technical training on Earth observation for flood mapping and emergency management.  The objective in Namibia was to implement a support system that allowed the Government to handle the aftermath of floods, and to put in place early warning systems for floods, as well as for vector- and water-borne diseases.


She said the Office would continue in the coming years to focus on global health issues, and she welcomed proposals from Member States related to the hosting of workshops, and the provision experts and other efforts, to raise awareness of the role of Space Science and Technology in eliminating global heath problems.


Discussion


The representative of Chile said that, for his delegation, it had been particularly worthwhile to hear the various presentations under the agenda item on international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, including those in the past that had dealt with climate change, space technology and food security.  Today’s panellists had provided information that was relevant to the needs of Member States, which was helpful when it came to bringing information back to respective countries.  He lamented, however, that the specialized agency on today’s topic, the WHO, was not present today, and inquired as to whether steps had been taken to have that organization present.


The representative of Brazil underscored the importance for developing countries of having access to space technology, as well as the importance of building capacities in developing countries for accessing, interpreting and modelling space data.  As had been illustrated in Ms. Othman’s presentation, UN-SPIDER provided one end of what was needed for space application as a tool to be used in sustainable development, especially in the field of health.  It was also important, however, to underscore the significance of the programme on space applications, because, under that one, several initiatives for developing capacities had been set up.  The capacity of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to support those two programmes was very important, she said.


In response to comments by Chile’s representative, Ms. TRTANJ said that her agency had worked to develop the partnership with the WHO.  She understood, however, the nature of having the partnerships present at the discussion, and did concur with his sentiment.  From her experience, it was necessary to keep working and to be patient, because things actually did materialize in the end.


Ms. OTHMAN said that the WHO had been invited to be on the panel, and had been confirmed as a panellist.  At the last minute, however, it had had to withdraw.  In response to comments made by Brazil’s representative, she said that the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, indeed, looked forward to developing both programmes.


For his part, Mr. AREVALO YEPES stressed that the question of tele-medicine must be brought to the attention of decision-makers, because very often there was the impression that it was a tangential issue.  There was also a need for collective endeavours with international agencies, not only at the global level, but at regional levels too.  A regional approach and treatment were needed, and that was why it was important to have regional agencies involved.


Introduction of Report


Introducing the report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Mr. AREVALO YEPES said that the United Nations system, in close coordination with its Member States, should find holistic solutions to current and emerging global problems through the sustainable uses of outer space.  Clear objectives were, thus, needed to strengthen that coordination, in particular on the role of space tools for global development agendas.


As never before, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space was assisting in the creation of national space commissions and coordinating bodies in all parts of the world in the establishment of regional cooperative structures.  As a result, an unprecedented number of agreements were now being seen on space cooperation between nations, space agencies and the private sector.  The Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education were also playing an important role in enhancing cooperative efforts, and had firmly established infrastructures for advanced training in the field of space science and technology, with highly successful long-standing educational programmes.


How to successfully build capacity in space law, particularly in developing countries, was a key area of the Legal Subcommittee, he said, and education, research and development, and the dissemination of information were necessary to enhance capacity in that field.


He said that the space environment was changing rapidly with an internationalization and globalization of the space sector, with a growing number of States seeking to develop space capabilities or acquire new ones.  Non-governmental actors were extending their involvement.  It was necessary, therefore, to develop a more inclusive approach, which involved all actors, while keeping in mind the critical needs of major populations.


By providing a unique platform in the United Nations for dialogue and cooperation among States and international organizations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental, the Outer Space Committee, with its Scientific and Legal Subcommittees, had a formidable role in further promoting its own capabilities as a main intergovernmental body in the space arena, he said.  A sound policy that was relevant to the overall objectives and priorities of the United Nations was, thus, essential for promoting and developing the application of space activities for the benefit of humankind.  The United Nations and its Member States must respond collectively to the rapidly evolving space arena in the twenty-first century.


Following the introduction of the report, the representative of Chile said that, in reference to draft resolution A/C.4/64/L.4, which had been submitted to the Committee by Chile and Mexico, the decision had been made to withdraw the draft.  The draft was the result of a mandate, and was also the result of unofficial and official consultations.  There were problems with countries outside the region of Latin America, and since democracy was very much supported, those differences were being respected.  The resolution would be set aside, but consultations on it would continue in Vienna.  He underscored that the two last space conferences in the Americas, in Cartagena and Quito, were extraordinarily successful because they had put forth the idea of interregional cooperation.  He thought it would be good to reflect that in a draft, as he had been asked to do.


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