Nighttime lights, observed from tens of thousands of kilometers from the earth’s surface, have advanced our ability to determine the impact of human activities using remote sensing technology. Light emissions from energy generated by human activities are captured from outer space by, then and now, state-of-the-art sensors and cameras carried on satellites that orbit the earth.
The use of nighttime light has gained a broader currency over the years as a proxy indicator for socioeconomic and environmental changes. A multitude of experts has applied nighttime light analysis in different fields to monitor urbanization, explore the impact of conflicts and disasters, evaluate aid-effectiveness, track fishery activities, evaluate carbon dioxide emissions and assess poverty.
With the help of its geospatial experts, iMMAP has been employing nighttime light analysis to examine the effects of conflicts in urban cities, including understanding population distribution over time and in hard to reach areas, assessing electrical functionality and its service availability, and observing market dynamics.
Among the free and widely used nighttime light data sets include the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Line-scan System (DMSP-OLS) and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). Other data sets with a high spatial resolution of night light images include the International Space Station (ISS), LJ1–01 and EROS-B, JL1–3B and JL1–07/08, which are commercially offered.
Below are a few examples from iMMAP’s research initiatives and projects utilizing nighttime light data, including iMMAP’s EU-flagship project, the Urban Analysis Network Syria (UrbAN-S), funded by the European Union.
Dar’a City, Syria
Considered the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, Dar’a’s large-scale protests to armed insurgencies from 2011 until 2018 were met with violent crackdowns and large offensives by the government of Syria and Russian allied forces.
Electrical services and provision were severely disrupted as a result of the skirmishes between government and armed opposition groups, which escalated in 2012. Areas under opposition control were cut off from the power grid and its electrical network sustained acute damages, which limited electrical supply. The disruption also hampered water provision due to the crippling of electrical pumping capabilities in southern Dar’a, which took a toll on the region’s agricultural production.
In the city’s government-controlled northern neighborhoods, an area known as Dar’a Al Mahatta, residents continued to receive electrical services as the state’s national grid supply prioritized cities on the national highway, including north Dar’a. The electricity supply in the southern neighborhoods under opposition control, an area known as Dara’a Al Balad, did not exceed two hours per day — a stark contrast to the daily supply of six hours in Dar’a Al Mahatta neighborhoods. These two hours of energy supply were secured through negotiations by opposition forces in exchange for water supply from dams within their control.
This discernible treatment is further evidenced below by an overview of electrical power assets generated by the UrbAN-S team.
Aleppo City, Syria
Once Syria’s largest city, Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world with a footprint dating back to the sixth millennium BC.
The majority of the city’s commercial and industrial infrastructure, predominantly the city’s formerly opposition-held eastern region, has been devastated. At the height of the conflict in 2015, the unemployment rate rose from 7.6% to 73.8%. The ruinous reality has effectively transformed Aleppo from an industrial and trade powerhouse to an aid-dependent economy.
The conflict severely ruptured the city’s electricity supply. Electrical distribution lines in the rural periphery were deliberately disrupted, inducing significant electrical supply cuts within the city. According to research conducted by iMMAP, from October 2015 through 2016, power outages and virtual blackouts were the norm as a consequence of underhanded takeovers of Aleppo’s primary electrical generation facility by different forces. Armed actors weaponized the utility against the city’s residents.
As uncovered in 2019 by the UrbAN-S team, the current grid coverage is limited to certain areas and neighborhoods, specifically the majority of western Aleppo and only a handful of eastern neighborhoods. In some western neighborhoods, power supply ranges from six to 15 hours of electricity per day — sometimes more. An average of twelve hours of electricity is available for the neighborhoods in the west.
The endless bombing sparked an exodus of Aleppans. In 2014, the population dropped by almost half, but the city has experienced a number of returnees since the Government of Syria regained control of the city in 2016. From January until December 2019, approximately 65,000 returnees have been recorded. The returns persist as highlighted in an August 2020 update provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which disclosed roughly 5,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) returning to Aleppo just second behind Idleb.
Mosul City, Iraq
Located in northern Iraq, Mosul is a historic city that dates back to the 25th century BC. Not only is it one of the oldest cities, it’s also Iraq’s second-largest city, a vital commercial center of cement, textile, sugar and a marketplace for agricultural products.
In June 2014, due to years of an ISIS-led insurgency, unresolved sectarian tensions, abuse and corruption that weakened Iraq’s security forces, the city would fall within the space of six grueling days to an ISIS force composed of 800 to 1,500 militants. In the space of two years, the city’s population dwindled from 2.5 million to 1.5 million, with its diverse population suffering considerably from a variety of cruelties: mass displacement, abductions, killings, forced conversions and slavery. It would take a long three years until Iraq retained its sovereignty over the besieged city.
Since then, Mosul has experienced a voluminous swell of returnees. According to the United Nations, approximately 244,000 returnees were recorded in less than a month after the city’s formal liberation. In a recent report released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2016, over 1 million returnees have been recorded in Mosul alone — the highest among Iraqi cities.
Benghazi City, Libya
Located north of Libya, Benghazi is situated on the Mediterranean coast and acts as a key seaport and a vital commercial and industrial center for the North African state.
From 2014 to 2017, this vital commercial hub was embroiled in a violent battle between the eastern-based Libyan National Army and a military coalition composed of Islamist militias called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.
Since 2016, Benghazi has absorbed a substantial amount of IDPs and the highest number of returnees among Libyan cities. Within January-February 2019, 42% of Libya’s recorded returnees resettled in Benghazi alone (189,175 out of 445,426 registered returnees). In that same timeframe, the highest number of IDPs was also recorded in the city (26,555). And in an updated report published by IOM, Benghazi recorded 189,025 returnees — a national high between May to June 2020.
About iMMAP Data Lab Stories
iMMAP’s Data Lab Stories is a collection of stories curated from experts and data archives, an initiative to uncover and share meaningful insights while showcasing iMMAP’s support to the humanitarian and development community.
Funded by the European Union, UrbAN-S was a two-year project that brought together consortium members iMMAP, Mercy Corps and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), alongside partners such as the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Common Space Initiative (CSI). The project contributed to a high-standard urban analysis of Syrian cities to enable effective planning and response.
The UrbAN-S project has released a total of 21 urban city profiles. To know more about the UrbAN-S project, please check out their web portal at www.urban-syria.org or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.