Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

Jesse Zondervan’s #GfGDPicks (Oct 2017): Tsunami risk in Geneva, storms in Mumbai, floating runways in Fiji, a river with legal rights, #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news, relevant to the work and interests of  Geology for Global Development . Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the past two weeks:

If you thought we were safe from Tsunamis in Europe, think again. I was surprised to find out Geneva experienced a Tsunami in 563 triggered by a mudslide. On a similar tack, a recent study at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory concludes the storm surge risk for Mumbai may result in a terrible disaster.

As well as better understanding the nature of the risks we face, an important aspect of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is communication. Academics from King’s College London report on a hazards-themed workshop they gave in Malawi. Read more about how they hope to reach >2000 students.

Meanwhile, Fiji suffers from floating airport runways due to the rise in sea-level and Dr Nick Mount explores Colombia for the question: Can a river have legal rights?

There is much more to explore below so go ahead! I’ll end with the following question:

What makes you curious? What would you like to know about geology and global development?

Please do leave a reply!

Some great articles came out around the International Day for Disaster Reduction:

Coastline of Mumbai, India

Climate Change Adaptation & Environmental:

Upcoming opportunities:

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan @JesseZondervan. Follow us @Geo_Dev & Facebook.

Introducing Our New Authors (4) – Bárbara Zambelli Azevedo

We’ve been introducing you to a couple of new faces on the GfGD blog, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives on topics relating to geoscience and sustainable development. We’re delighted to have their input, and look forward to their posts. Today we interview the final of our four new recruits, Bárbara Zambelli Azevedo.

Hello! Could you introduce yourself?

I finished my graduation in Geological Engineering at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, Brazil, in June of this year. As a student, I’ve spent one year doing an academic exchange at University College Cork, Ireland. In addition, I was part of the Excursionist and Speleological Society (SEE-EM/UFOP) since 2012, having worked in over 150 caves!

During the past 6 years, I had the opportunity to visit, travel, study and work in more than 20 countries, in America, Africa and Europe. After that, my interest on the relationship between geology and society was significantly enhanced.

Recently, I saw the opportunity of getting involved with GfGD as a science communicator. I got really excited about it! As I see, science communication is about shortening distances by connecting people with the same interests, building a strong network worldwide. I’m passionate about travelling, photography, cooking, engaging with other cultures and experiencing other ways of living. I love to spend time outdoors, hiking and climbing as much as I can.

How did you find out about GfGD?

The first time I heard about GfGD was while researching for my graduate thesis, at the end of last year. Before that, I’d experienced some different areas within geology. I was tutoring structural geology for one semester, and have done some research on geochronology, speleology, field geology and geological mapping. When I came back from Ireland and started to write my thesis, I decided to stray from classical geology to explore  “social geology” , the overlap between “geology” and “development”. At this moment I came across the GfGD blog, with many useful open access papers and posts on different topics. I also heard about the 5th GfGD Annual Conference. After finishing my thesis, I got in touch and decided to get involved with this charity!

Can you give us a glimpse of your grad thesis?

For sure! The title of my thesis is “The role of geology in Ouro Preto’s development”. It tells the history of Ouro Preto, its occupation, the relationship with the geology in its very beginning and also today. The data collected showed that many problems faced by the city are due to chaotic urbanisation since the 1960’s and the historical economic dependence of the mining sector. Supported by the papers Stewart & Gill (2017) and Gill (2017), I proposed some actions to be taken by geologists working at Ouro Preto’s public administration to achieve some of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. If you want to know more, please contact me, or come along to the 5th GfGD Annual Conference where I’ll be giving a micro-presentation on my work!

What themes will you be writing about?

Widely, as expected, I would say that I’m keen on writing about how geoscience can address the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I would love to learn more about hydrogeology, climate change and urban geology. In this sense, I’m looking forward to the 5th GfGD Annual Conference on “Cities: Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Development” to see what pops up from there. I expect to produce a range of article types, including paper reviews, free online resources and data, study cases, among others.

Ideas for the future?

Presently, I have plans to do a Master in Hydrogeology next year. Since none of my field experience is directly related to hydrogeology, I also hope to engage in field work for a while before that. Ideally, I would love to work towards  poverty relief, gender equality, access to clean water and sanitation using hydrogeology, geoscience education and science communication in as many parts of the Global South as I can. I’m also eager to keep on writing posts for GfGD blog!

You can contact Bárbara via geol.zambelli[at]gmail.com

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Bárbara Zambelli Azevedo). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

Robert Emberson: Soil Erosion and Sustainable Development

Over the last few weeks we’ve introduced you to some new faces on the GfGD blog, including Robert Emberson, Heather Britton and Jesse Zondervan. Today, Robert (based in Victoria, Canada) writes on the connections between soil erosion and sustainable development, and poses the question – is soil one of our most threatened resources? 

When we talk about sustainable energy sources, most of the time we’re referring to renewable sources of electricity and heat. Geothermal, solar, wind or waves – these are all sources of energy that are, within practical limits, not exhausted by our use. However, all living species need more than just electricity and heat as energy; we need food to sustain us.

The vast majority of food for humans requires agriculture, whether vegetable crop or grazing species. Agriculture depends completely on fertile soil to succeed, but we often don’t think about soil as a resource that really matters. Crucially, however, the rate at which soil forms is vastly outpaced by the rate it erodes away in modern farming. For all intents and purposes, soil is a non-renewable resource, like fossil fuels.

A recently published UN study has highlighted this, estimating that 24 billion tons of fertile soil is lost annually every year – primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. The implications for sustainable production of food are obvious, with some studies suggesting we only have an average of 60 years’ worth of harvests left under the current practices.

We shouldn’t ignore the inherent potential of this crisis to exacerbate existing economic inequalities, too; according to the study authors “critically unbalanced land productivity trends in African cropland and grasslands are particularly concerning given expected population growth.”  This, in fact, highlights the most worrying trend; even as soil is eroded away, and the amount of cropland dwindles, the global population increases apace, with 9 billion mouths to feed estimated by 2050.

Farming in Uganda (Source: GfGD)

Moreover, the UN study emphasises that degradation of soil and loss of agricultural land increases the competition for already-scarce resources, which could lead to mass migration or social instability, further increasing the difficulty of implementing sustainable solutions.

So how has the problem become so acute? It is useful to first explain how soil erosion occurs naturally, before thinking about how humans have impacted the natural cycles. Roughly, natural soils form as the result of chemical breakdown of underlying bedrock, supplemented by organic matter decaying from dead plants and animals. In a stable system, the rate at which soils are produced is in balance with the rate at which water washes away surface material during floods and storms.

In some parts of the world, where warm, wet, conditions are ideal for plant growth and chemical reactions, soil can grow extremely fast – as much as 2.5mm per year, although the global average is nearer to 0.1mm per year.

Water is the primary agent that erodes the soil. Whenever rain falls, droplets can dislodge material, and these can be washed away downhill or carried in floodwaters over landscape. It’s no surprise, then, that soils through which water can more easily infiltrate are less likely to lose material to overland flow. However, humans have fundamentally altered this balance.

Natural forests allow water to infiltrate into soil quickly, but without root systems and porous soil this can be much lower. For example, in Wales scientists demonstrated that forested plots had infiltration rates 67 times faster than sheep pastures. Agricultural land is similar, or can be worse; if there are no crops to bind the soil together for some parts of the year, or if ploughing churns up the soil and allows material to be easily washed away, topsoil can be severely depleted in a single flood.

These two factors – lack of plant cover, and extensive tillage – are hallmarks of high intensity farming globally, but as the UN study points out, while this kind of farming has increased productivity over the last decades, it is increasingly unsustainable. Addition of fertiliser has increased the productivity, but masked the degradation of arable land. Moreover, in some regions it creates a viscous cycle, where loss of productive land leads to deforestation to access untapped soil.

Forests are key buffers against many slow and fast moving disasters; they can limit flooding, by encouraging water to infiltrate rather than running over landscape, and in doing so can allow more water to reach aquifers – thus limiting drought later. They also serve important roles in stabilising hill-slopes against landslides, and slow desertification. Given how long it takes for forest to regrow, it seems clear that the impact of soil loss will be felt for years to come.

So what can be done to prevent it? And how can geologists act to help address the problem, particularly how we can still achieve sustainability goals in the face of the rapid loss of life-giving topsoil? An integrative approach is certainly important. Soil is the interface where life, at a microbial and macro-scale, coexists with physical and chemical processes in the bedrock. Understanding how all of these fit together is crucial to build a clearer picture of the at-risk soil.

Sustainable rehabilitation of agricultural land has been achieved at a wide scale in some countries, like Ethiopia. Surface process geologists could help by producing maps of local and regional propensity for erosion, to help guide these efforts. Scientists from the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre have been hard at work producing for the first time maps of soil chemistry and health across sub-Saharan Africa, and these should similarly help to more efficiently utilise the soil for particular crops, and aid in crop choice for a given location, if appropriately combined with crop biology assessments.

The authors of the UN study explain that increasing the efficiency of agriculture would certainly alleviate some of the stress on croplands. Improvements in efficacy can be found at different points throughout the food supply chain; for example, the authors write that:

“Eliminating food waste would reduce the projected need to increase the efficiency of food production by 60 per cent to meet expected demands by 2050”.

Meat uses five times as much land for a given nutritional intake than the comparable vegetable option, so reducing the intake of meat, along with other nutritionally inefficient crops (like soy and palm oil) would distinctly reduce the amount of cropland needed to feed 9 billion people. These solutions are politically sensitive, of course, but scientists can make informed decisions about their own food choices, and encourage others to do the same.

Above all, given how important soil is to land surface processes, many geologists could ask themselves which aspects of their own knowledge might help alleviate this significantly under-reported problem. While we have alternative, renewable energy sources to turn to instead of fossil fuels, we don’t yet have an alternative to soil, and as such it’s perhaps imperative to think about soil as one of our most threatened resources.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Victoria, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com).

**This article expresses the personal opinion of the author. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.**

Heather Britton: India’s Energy-Climate Dilemma

Heather Britton is one of our new writers, today reporting on a summary of this paper by Andrew J Apostoli and William A Gough, covering the difficulties of pursuing reduced greenhouse gas emissions whilst fuelling one of the largest populations on the planet – India. The actions of this country are contributing to the eventual achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals 7 and 13 – Affordable and Clean Energy, and Climate Action respectively.

India makes up 18% of the world’s population (1.2 billion people) with this value predicted to rise to 1.5 billion by 2030. Like many countries in the Global South, India is currently reliant upon fossil fuels to meet its energy demands, but it lacks the natural resources to provide energy for its people in this way – already 80% of its oil is imported, and this is likely to increase in the coming years. On top of this, India’s current energy production is falling short of their present requirements, with only 44% of households having access to electricity and 600,000 villages yet to be connected to the national electricity network.

You could be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that reducing carbon emissions would not be a priority, with the more pressing issue of making sure all Indians have access to energy taking precedence. This, however, is far from the reality, and although per-capita emissions are predicted to increase significantly as a result of the demands of a growing population, India’s renewable energy sector is ranked fifth in the world (Figure 1), and plans are in place to ensure that this sector’s growth does not stop here.

Figure 1: Global renewable energy investments. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment, 2016

Although a factor in this statistic is the huge (and expanding) population of the country, it seems that India truly are passionate about pursuing a sustainable future. A survey recently revealed that many Indian citizens were happy to pay a carbon tax due to their awareness of the environment and the problems it is currently facing. To some, the environmental conscience of the country is seen as exacerbating India’s energy problem – if India can’t generate enough energy to ensure that all of its people have access to a sizeable and dependable energy source, why restrict the use of some of the most reliable methods of energy generation on the planet? – Others however have seen it as an admirable step in pursuit of sustainable development.

India has adopted ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through climate change policies and financial incentives to promote the development of new renewable energy initiatives, but it is currently unclear whether this will be enough for India to overcome its present day energy difficulties and meet the environmental promises that they have made both to their public and the global community (e.g. pledging to reduce emissions by 20-25% by 2020, although this is not legally binding).

Figure 2: Smog in New Delhi, India. Source: Prakhar Misra (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The landscape and climate of India are well suited to many forms of renewable energy generation, making these options financially viable. It is clear that if India is to achieve its goal of supplying affordable energy to allow economic growth in an environmentally-conscious manner, renewable energy must be heavily invested in, enabling technological developments to be made in this industry.

The Indian government has produced a number of funding initiatives to encourage such investment: for example the ‘National Action Plan on Climate Change’ (NAPCC) was formed ‘to make India a prosperous and efficient economy that is self-sustaining for both present and future generations while confronting climate change’ (Apostoli and Gough, 2016). Its aims include reducing poverty, reducing the anthropogenic effects of climate change and developing technologies at a fast pace to ensure the regulation and mitigation of greenhouse gases.

Other funding initiatives include the coal tax, which has risen form 50 rupees per tonne of coal in 2010 to 400 rupees per tonne in 2016, the money from which is used to finance the national clean environment fund. Up to 2015 this fund had developed 46 clean energy initiatives, and has allowed further projects to take off since. In addition, tax-free bonds were offered from 2015-2016 for the financing of renewable energy initiatives, valued at around $800 million.

India therefore has succeeded in creating motivation for the development of renewable energy and has a plethora of methods of renewable energy generation available – the details for some of which I have outlined below:

Hydropower: With altitudes ranging from the highs of the Himalayas to lows of the Ganges delta, India’s landscape is perfectly suited to both large and small scale hydropower plants. As of 2013 17%  of the total electricity generated in India was from hydropower stations, second only to coal, demonstrating the potential for the development of this field in the future.

Solar: Sitting between the tropic of cancer and the equator, India is ideally situated for the generation of energy through the use of solar cells. Solar energy has the potential to surpass India’s annual energy consumption and allow it to become a global leader in solar energy, although the initial costs of the solar cells required is considerable. With schemes such as the ‘National Solar Mission’, aiming to have 22 GW of solar capacity by 2022, the solar sector in India is expected to expand rapidly.

Wind: There is huge potential for the wind industry. Wind generation is not only the largest growing renewable energy sector in India, but is also experiencing a recent rise in social acceptability, leading to the prediction that in 2020 wind energy will save 48 million tonnes of CO2.

Biomass: This is an incredibly important energy source for India, as 70% of the country’s population rely on it for energy. Currently, however, biomass is being used inefficiently, exposing children and women to high levels of indoor pollution. Policies have been developed to encourage more efficient and cleaner utilisation of this abundant fuel, but there is still a long way to go in improving the use of biomass.

Figure 3: Landscape of the Indian Himalaya, well suited to many methods of renewable energy generation. Source: Yuval Sadeh (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The progress in the renewable energy industry sounds promising, but as ever problems are arising. Last year the Indian state Tamil Nadu generated more energy using solar cells than it required – but this energy could not be passed on to other states as the grid was not sophisticated enough to  connect this excess of renewable energy to neighbouring states. It is clear that developing methods of renewable energy generation is of great importance, but without careful planning much of the future renewable energy generated may go to waste.

In conclusion, sustainable development is of pressing concern to India, a country which houses a significant proportion of the world’s poor. There is currently heavy demand for fossil fuels, as the country undergoes unprecedented economic growth, rapid population increase and industrialisation. This places pressure not only on the national grid, but on unsustainable resources which will be exhausted under current consumption rates.

In response to these challenges India has invested heavily in the deployment of renewable energy strategies. With a combination of financial incentives, taxes and subsidies, India has caused a surge in renewable energy schemes, working to exploit the country’s landscape. Although it is still in the early stages of development, India’s dedication towards renewable energy will result in greater energy security for the world’s second largest population, providing them with the independence to facilitate economic growth whilst reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. There is certainly more work to be done, but the impetus that India has demonstrated in finding solutions to their energy crisis will hopefully result in a happy ending for this sustainable development story.

Read more: Andrew J Apostoli and William A Gough, (2016) India’s Energy-Climate Dilemma: The Pursuit for Renewable Energy Guided by Existing Climate Change Policies, Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change, 7:362.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **