Aftermath of poll clashes seen from space

Two large orange-coloured zones indicate where the worst of Kenya's rural post-election violence has occurred in a new UN map created by focusing civilian satellite cameras onto some of the country’s clash-hit areas and revealing the number of fires burning.

The UNOSAT map shows two hotspots of trouble in Kenya's Rift Valley Province - around the town of Eldoret, and a smaller one around the town of Timboroa to the south, along the main road leading to Nairobi.

Other scattered locations in the province are shaded yellow, indicating a lesser but noticeable number of fires.

The satellite data suggest there was much less arson on 2 January than in previous days.

A UNOSAT official, Einar Bjorgo, said higher-resolution imagery would soon be made available on the hardest-hit areas "to pinpoint local damage".

UNOSAT published its map of "active fire locations" online on 4 January. It has used MODIS Aqua and Terra satellites from the election day on 27 December to 2 January.

While the satellite imagery cannot distinguish between naturally-occurring fires or agriculture-related fires and those linked to election violence, UNOSAT states: “It is probable that a majority of detected fires (peaking on 1 January 2008) are directly or indirectly linked to the electoral civil unrest.”

UNOSAT also warns that there is a "large degree of uncertainty" and gaps in the data.
However, what emerges is a unique view of where election-related violence has produced fires that can be remotely sensed from space.

In Kenya's Rift Valley Province, media reports and video from media and the Kenya Red Cross have provided vivid evidence of the burning of homesteads, shops and houses in communal violence that erupted after the announcement of fiercely-contested presidential election results.

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Fires blaze around Kericho in Western Kenya in post election violence

Bjorgo, head of UNOSAT's rapid mapping unit, told IRIN by phone from Norway that this is the first time the group has produced maps of fire related to civil conflict. Previous maps had been made of forest fires in Europe.

The purpose of the map and others UNOSAT has produced since 2001 is to assist agencies and governments involved in relief operations in logistics and planning, usually after natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

While the satellite data is by definition "completely objective" and labelled with disclaimers, Bjorgo said a "spinoff" purpose of the maps is for humanitarian advocacy.

The most prominent example of using satellite imagery for human rights and humanitarian purposes has so far been Amnesty International's Eyes on Darfur project, which mapped villages burnt and at risk of being torched in Darfur using satellite imagery and Google Earth's software tools.

The humanitarian impact of poll-related clashes in Kenya has been hard to assess due to insecurity on the roads and fuel shortages hampering access. A request was made by UN agencies in Kenya to produce the UNOSAT map.

The maps, in PDF format, are available at:

low resolution version
high resolution version