On November the 5th 2015, the Fundão mining dam in Brazil failed for an unknown reason, causing one of the most serious ecological disasters the country has ever seen. The dam, which is located 500km north of Rio de Janeiro, was holding toxic sludge and mineral waste from a nearby iron mine. More than 60 million cubic metres of mud was spilt when the dam failed and this volume of unexpected material resulted in the failure of a second dam located below, further exasperating the issue.
Bento Rodrigues, a village located just two kilometres from the dam, was ravaged by the mudslide, killing 13 people and leaving more than 50 people injured. The toxic mudslide eventually joined the second largest river in Brazil, the Rio Doce, and then the ocean, killing thousands of fish and depriving half a million of people clean drinking water.
How do we respond?
When an unexpected disaster, such as this occurs, authorities need immediate visibility of the situation on the ground to enable an appropriate response to be planned and executed. The International Charter ‘Space and Major Disasters’ aims at providing precisely that. It is a unique, global collective of 16 space agencies, initiated in July 1999 by the European (ESA) and French (CNES) space agencies. Airbus DS Intelligence is one of its historical partners. It responds to the Charter objectives in using satellites to rapidly collect and disseminate imagery, to provide local and national authorities with the intelligence they require to plan an effective emergency response and mitigate the humanitarian impact of a disaster.
Each member space agency has committed resources to The International Charter, giving authorised users access to a unique pool of know-how and satellites resources, which can be tasked through the Charter’s dedicated online portal, 24/7, at no cost for the user.
The Pléiades constellation was selected due to its ability to acquire and deliver imagery in near real-time – therefore offering the most suitable solution for fast and useful results.
On the 8th of November 2015, The International Charter was triggered by INPE (the Brazilian Space Agency), on behalf of CENAD (Brazilian National Risk and Disaster Management Agency). Among several optical satellites requested by the International Charter, Airbus tasked the very high-resolution Pléiades satellite constellation, using its unique OneNow option, to retrieve images of the area surrounding the Fundão mining dam, in order to identify the extent of the disaster and help the response activity. The Pléiades constellation was selected due to its ability to acquire and deliver imagery in near real-time – therefore offering the most suitable solution for fast and useful results.
Once tasked, Pléiades faced a challenge due to heavy cloud cover over the area of interest. Thanks to OneNow option, Airbus delivers three acquisitions in the shortest timeframe and in case of difficult weather conditions, the activated satellite constellation insists in collecting the area until successful images are obtained: extra top-priority acquisitions are made to provide urgently a clear view of the situation: the first Pléiades image of the dam was thus acquired on the 11th November. 6 mapping products, based on several Pléiades images acquired in two days, were processed by CENAD and helped them to develop an appropriate response to the disaster.