DAMSAT overview

Dam monitoring from satellites (DAMSAT) is a system which uses satellite technology to remotely monitor water and tailings dams and other tailings storage facilities. The system helps to reduce the risk of failure of these structures and the consequent risk to population and damage to ecosystems downstream upon which many vulnerable communities rely for both their source of water and livelihoods.

DAMSAT uses a combination of Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) and
Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technologies combined with real-time in-situ devices to monitor infrastructure displacements. It also uses optical satellite data to monitor pollution indicators, integrates weather forecasts and information about possible impacts downstream if there is a failure.

In order to support asset managers to take preventative actions DAMSAT generates warnings when abnormal behaviour or weather conditions occur. The system is being implemented in two areas of the mining regions of Cajamarca and Pasco in Peru, monitoring several operational and nonoperation water and tailings dams and tailings storage facilities.

Download the project summary here.

What is the challenge?

Tailings dams are earth embankments used to store toxic mine waste and effluent and can be more than 100m high. They are often constructed with steep slopes using the tailings to save on costs.

Keeping these structures intact over many decades is challenging. The failure rate of tailings dams worldwide over the past 100 years has been estimated by Azam and Li (2010)(*) to be 1.2%, which is more than two orders of magnitude higher than the failure rate of conventional water retention dams which is reported to be 0.01% (1). Some 50% of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred between 1990 and 2009 (2). These have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives. The cost of catastrophic failures of tailing dams globally over the next ten years is predicted to be approximately US$6 billion (3).

There is a need for a cost effective service to monitor operational, closed and abandoned tailings dams and storage facilities, especially those in remote locations, and to help forecast potentially catastrophic failures.

The project focusses in Peru, in the mining regions of Cajamarca and Cerro de Pasco. It is estimated that Peru has some 200 operating mines. Most of these operational mines have tailings dams, and in addition there are also thousands of abandoned mines or tailings deposit areas throughout the country. In 2015, there were at least 1,200 inactive mining facilities registered in Cajamarca alone (4). It is currently challenging for governments with limited resources to be able to effectively monitor these sites.

Our objective

Our objective is to provide a proof of concept of a more cost effective way of remotely monitoring tailings dams and other tailings deposit areas utilising Earth Observation (EO) and Global Navigation Satellite System technologies (GNSS) combined with real-time in-situ devices and associated analysis and forecasting tools.

We aim to

  • support the reduction of the environmental and social impacts of tailings dams and storage facilities failures in Peru
  • influence the adoption of Earth Observation monitoring tools for tailings dams and storage facilities by engaging with key stakeholders
  • provide key stakeholders with an operational service to identify the probability of failure of tailings dam or storage facilities, the potential pollution incidents and to provide a recommended response.

This will contribute towards two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

UN SDG Clean water and sanitation

SDG 6.3: Improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.

UN-SDG6-12-Manage-chemical-wasteSDG 12.4: Achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

Who works on it?

The project involves working with Government Agencies and local stakeholders in Peru as well as multi-national mining companies, to test the approach on a number of sites, either operational, closed or abandoned.

The project consortium is made up of UK partners: HR Wallingford leading the project, Telespazio VEGA, Siemens Corporate Technology, Satellite Applications Catapult, Oxford Policy Management, and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford; and Peruvian partners: Ciemam, the National Foundation for Hydraulic Engineering, and the National University of Cajamarca (School of Hydraulic Engineering and Faculty of Engineering).

For how long?

The project started in March 2018 and will end in October 2020.



The project is awarded by the International Partnership Programme (IPP), a 5 year programme run by the UK Space Agency seeking to use space solutions to make a positive and practical impact on the lives of those living in emerging and developing economies. IPP is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, a fund from the UK Government which supports cutting-edge research and innovation strengths to deliver sustainable economic or societal benefits to emerging and developing countries around the world. The projects under IPP are also match funded by the partners.

Full description of the project

For a full description of the project, visit our project description page.

(*) Azam, S., Li, Q. (2010) Tailings dam failures: a review of the last one hundred years. Waste GeoTechnics. Geotechnical news
(1) ICOLD (2001). Tailings Dams – Risk of dangerous occurrences, lessons learnt from practical experiences, Bulletin 121
(2) Bowker, L.N. and Chambers, D.M. (2015) The risk, public liability, and economics of tailings storage facility failures
(3) Bowker, L.N. and Chambers, D.M. (2015) The risk, public liability, and economics of tailings storage facility failures
(4) Grupo de Formacion e Intervencion para el Desarrollo Sostenible (2015) Pasivos ambientales mineros en la region Cajamarca.