Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

Water and Sustainable Development – 6th GfGD Annual Conference Event Report

Water and Sustainable Development – 6th GfGD Annual Conference Event Report

Understanding, managing and protecting water resources is critical to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., education, water and sanitation, healthy oceans, zero hunger, good health, gender equality, energy, industry, and biodiversity). Increasing urbanisation, industrialisation, and climate change, however, are increasing pressure on water supplies and reducing water quality. Our 6th Annual Conference explored the role of geoscientists in managing conflicting demands for water, ensuring that the needs of the poorest are met while enhancing the health of ecosystems. We recently published a full event report online, and here we share some of the highlights.

Our Annual Conference is a highlight for many involved in the work of Geology for Global Development, bringing together people from across the UK and beyond to explore how geoscientists can contribute to sustainable development. This year approximately 120 attendees gathered at the Geological Society of London to talk about all things water, Sustainable Development Goals and geoscience.

The conference was opened by Lord Duncan of Springbank (UK Government Minister for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and a fellow geoscientist). Lord Duncan gave a passionate description of the important links between politics, geology and sustainable development. Another distinguished guest was Benedicto Hosea, visiting the UK from Tanzania and working closely with the Tanzania Development Trust. Benedicto gave us an insight into water resources in Tanzania, and the realities of implementing projects and taking practical action to improve water provision.

Our keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Bob Kalin from the University of Strathclyde, who gave us an overview of the interactions between water, geoscience and human impacts – and why it is important that geoscientists engage in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. You can find a recording of a similar talk Professor Kalin presented at a TedX event.

The first panel discussion of the day focused on management, with insight from industry, academia and the Overseas Development Institute. We discussed the challenges involved in listening to and considering many stakeholders, the management of transnational aquifers and how best to enforce policy – then attempted to come with some solutions to these challenges. Our event report includes links to key reading suggested by our panellists.

Water contamination is a significant environmental issue in many countries at all stages of development.  We heard about research into salinization and arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh. Mike Webster, head of WasteAid (check them out here) gave a different perspective on water contamination, talking about the work the charity has done in improving solid waste collection, thereby improving drainage and water quality.

Probably the most hectic, yet fun part of the conference was the UN style activity – we split up into groups representing different stakeholders and came up with a research and innovation statement relating to water and the SDGs.

We were also joined by The Eleanor Foundation, a charity working in Tanzania to provide access to safe, clean water provision to communities through pump installation and education programmes. It was so inspiring to hear about a charity that has undertaken effective work in ensuring the sustainable supply of water to communities, and made a real difference in improving lives – it is estimated that the Eleanor Foundation has improved access to water to over 250,000 people. In 2019, GfGD will be supporting the work of The Eleanor Foundation, helping to deliver SDG 6 in Tanzania. We will be using surplus income from our conference, together with other funds, to facilitate an evaluation of The Eleanor Foundation’s water programme. This will generate recommendations for The Eleanor Foundation team to ensure long-term impact and sustainability.

In true GSL conference style, we finished the conference with a reception in the library, giving us all the chance to chat about the conference and meet people sharing an interest in geoscience and development (of course admiring William Smith’s geological map!). I think it would be fair to say that a fun and interesting day was had by all, and I left feeling excited by the number of geoscientists I met that all share enthusiasm for the role that geoscientists have in helping to achieve the SDGs.

The 7th GfGD Annual Conference will be on Friday 15th November 2019, hosted again by the Geological Society of London. Please do save the date, and we hope to see you there!

Laura Hunt is a member of the GfGD Executive Team, and a PhD Student at the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey.

Is geological mapping becoming obsolete?

Is Geological Mapping Becoming Obsolete?

Geology students typically experience some form of mapping education as part of their course and attitudes towards this baptism into the geosciences vary from adoration to utter hatred. Whatever the opinions of the students, however, it is widely recognised that performing mapping exercises is an excellent way to learn the basics of structural geology which underpins aspects of both further geological education and the use of geology in industry. Unfortunately, the number of graduates using the mapping skills practiced in their undergraduate years is dwindling. There is an increase in the use of seismic and borehole data alone to generate cross-sections through the earth, where field-collected strike and dip data, used alone or in tandem with other methods, can often provide a far better insight into what really occurs under the ground. As the number of graduates practicing field mapping in their careers continues to decrease, we may be reaching a time when mapping skills are lost to all but a few specialists, and even these may eventually disappear.


Is geological mapping obsolete?

Drone technology is now used in numerous mapping expeditions. Credit: Chris Sherwood, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (distributed via USGS).

Technology and mapping have coevolved over the years, from mapping via horse and cart to the use of drones to pick up larger-scale landscape features that may not be visible at ground level. The question is, as technology develops to simplify many of the physical aspects of mapping will it remove the need for traditional geological mapping altogether? In many ways mapping involves risks that are not encountered in many other professions – trekking off the marked paths abroad can mean coming face-to-face with venomous snakes, bears or wild boar (all of which occurred during my year’s undergraduate mapping projects) and often a quick look at a satellite image of the area can answer questions that days squinting at an outcrop cannot.

Despite these drawbacks, it must be appreciated that there is certain information that can only be obtained by looking at a rock first hand, such as the identities of different minerals and the deformation history of a high grade metamorphic rock. It is for this reason that exploration geologists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the apparent lack of next-generation geoscientists well practiced in the art of mapping.

The potential reasons for this negative trend are numerous – the lower numbers of professional structural geologists teaching next-generation geoscientists, a lack of companies offering mapping placements over the university holidays and fewer students taking up the subject, with the number of schools and colleges offering geology as an A level having dropped substantially over the past few years. At the same time, there has been a noticeable shift towards less fieldwork-focussed university curricula due to the high cost of fieldwork and the liability this presents to institutions,  and a trend toward exploration in regions with more cover, where outcrops can be scarce.Nonetheless, it is very difficult to overestimate the value of mapping – after all, no geological discipline is complete without a map and preventing the decline should become a priority.

Increasing the number of geologists capable of mapping depends on replenishing skills regularly to ensure that techniques developed whilst at university can be maintained until the opportunity becomes available in an industrial setting. Further funding from companies toward the initial university mapping training may also be beneficial, as would the continued emphasis of structural geology in courses that are broadening due to advances in other rapidly growing geoscience fields, e.g. geochemistry. It is also important to appreciate that although mapping may seem old-fashioned it is by no means outdated – maps themselves are today constructed using cutting edge GIS technology, which plays a far greater part in the final product than might be initially assumed from glancing at a student’s notebook.

Is geological mappping obsolete ?

Highly deformed marble and pelite layers. Structures such as this are only visible at hand-specimen scale and it is therefore important that geologists enter the field in order to make these observations. Credit: David Tanner (distributed via

Although geological mapping skills are decreasing, they are far from being lost altogether. As industries appreciate the value of experienced field mapping talent we can hope that the funding will follow, to ensure that this age-old art continues to be practiced for the benefit of not just geological disciplines, but other areas of society too. Geological cartographers may help find mineral veins for mining, or potential aquifers enabling them to provide water to parched communities, helping to achieve SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). A technique with so much potential should not be allowed to be lost from the world.


Rainfall related geohazards: floods, landslides and mudslides in Rio – A dangerous combination of nature and human-related factors

Rainfall related geohazards: floods, landslides and mudslides in Rio – A dangerous combination of nature and human-related factors

Rainfall-related geohazards in Brazil’s poorer, mountainous city margins could be mitigated using better urban planning and communication. Our own Brazilian blogger Bárbara Zambelli Azevedo explores the problem and possible solutions.

I come from Brazil, a country well-known for its beautiful landscapes, football and carnival. Ok, some stereotypes are true, indeed.

Situated in the middle of the South American tectonic plate and away from geohazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, this tropical country may seem like paradise to some. However, we are not completely safe from geohazards.

Every year during the summer, which is a heavy rain season, many lives are lost, and people are displaced by floods, landslides and mudslides all over the country. I want to give a particular focus on the state of Rio de Janeiro, where a summer storm killed at least 6 people on the 6th of February this year. I should mention that it was not an isolated event at all.

The situation of the state of Rio de Janeiro is complicated, and its analysis should take into consideration the geomorphology of the area, its climate and – importantly – urban planning.

According to the Brazilian Geological Survey, the bedrock in the area is composed mainly of igneous and metamorphic rocks, and the relief is characterised by steep mountain slopes over 2,000 m, alternated with sedimentary basins.

In 2011 floods, landslides and mudlslides resulted in 903 deaths and over 2,900 people had their homes destroyed

These mountains are a part of a major structure named Serra do Mar (Sea Ridge), a 1,500 km long system of mountain ranges and escarpments parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, running from Rio de Janeiro State until Santa Catarina, in the south of Brazil. Geomorphological features seen today started to form during the opening of the Atlantic Ocean during the Cretaceous, were consolidated throughout the Tertiary and still are modified by erosional and sedimentary events.

The climate is described as tropical in coastal areas such as Rio de Janeiro City and Angra dos Reis. It is warm and humid all year round, with a mean temperature around 23°C and an average annual precipitation of 1,300 mm. The rain season occurs in the summer (Dec-Mar) when 45% of precipitation falls.

In mountainous areas such as Nova Friburgo and Teresópolis, the climate is characterised as temperate. Temperatures are milder at an annual mean of 18°C and the average annual rainfall is 1700 mm, with 59% falling in the summer months of December to March. Therefore, extreme rainfall events are not rare, and they are usually associated with floods and landslides.

The worst weather-related natural hazard-induced disaster in Brazil happened in January 2011, when it rained 166 mm in a 24 hour period in the Serra dos Órgãos region, which is a local denomination of Serra do Mar. Six cities were affected by floods, landslides and mudslides: Teresópolis, Petrópolis, Nova Friburgo, Bom Jardim, Sumidouro and São José do Vale do Rio Preto. These flows resulted in 903 deaths and over 2,900 people had their homes destroyed.

A year earlier the state of Rio had been the scene of another tragedy. It was New Year’s Eve and the city of Angra dos Reis was full of tourists. After intense rainfall, many mudslides were triggered and left at least 44 people dead. Such events repeat themselves every year.

Satellite imagery of the 2011 mudslides in Nova Friburgo - before and after. Via Google Earth, collected in 2019.

Satellite imagery of the 2011 mudslides in Nova Friburgo – before and after. Via Google Earth, collected in 2019.

Just like Rio, most Brazilian cities lack urban planning and settlements are segregated socio-economically. Usually an impoverished population is pushed to marginalised areas of cities, which are usually steep and mountainous areas where the risk of landslides is higher.

In this article geologist and former president of the Institute of Technological Research of São Paulo Álvaro Santos states that only few Brazilian geohazards are triggered exclusively by nature.

In fact, most of our geological and hydrological issues are, somehow, led by poor land-use management, both in cities and in the countryside. Santos also explains that tragedies related to rainfall are usually caused by a lack of land-use planning and housing, and inefficient government communication.

We must learn from our own history and examples from other places like Indian Chennai and Tamil Nadu to tackle the challenge elevated hazard risk in city margins. A good starting point is raising the awareness of the population living in high-risk areas by using geoscience education and science communication.

Geoprevention aims to raise the awareness of the local community about geotechnical and environmental risks such as floods, landslides, infiltration, river erosion and sedimentation and waste disposal

We have a good example from the city of Curitiba, where students from the Federal University of Paraná developed a project titled GeoPrevention. This project aims to raise the awareness of the local community about geotechnical and environmental risks such as floods, landslides, infiltration, river erosion and sedimentation and waste disposal. The students use didactic material like folders, manuals, booklets and provide mini-courses and lectures about these topics with a playful character that is easily understood.

This initiative is important because it provides an interdisciplinary dialogue between a university and civil society, in particular, the population affected by those geohazards, to recognise and avoid them at the individual level.

At a higher level, we need governments and policy-makers to take action on effective urban planning and risk management, and invest more in the prevention of rainfall-related geohazards than on their remediation.

In addition, the active participation of civil society and the private sector is crucial to building resilient societies. Technological innovations such as the internet of things and dashboards should also be used to improve disaster prediction and population warning.

The city of Rio de Janeiro has two big data operation centres, the Operation Centre and Integrated Centre of Command and Control, both launched before World Cup which granted Rio the title of “World Smart City” in 2013.

The centres improved disaster management by mapping areas with high risk of flood-related landslides and implementing a critical early warning and evacuation system for Rio’s favelas. However, according to this article, they have failed at “go[ing] beyond high-tech marketing rhetoric and help[ing] real people living in the city”.

Even though it is very complicated and takes time to solve the problem of rainfall-related hazard risk in city margins, it must start sometime: why not now?!

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

Private solutions, public science: how to bridge the gap?

The urgency around many sustainability issues leads some billionaire investors to throw caution in the wind, frustrated with the pace of academic research. Robert Emberson sympathises with private projects like the Ocean Cleanup, even when things go wrong. ‘How’, he asks, ‘might we build a constructive bridge between ambitious entrepreneurs and scientific sceptics? ‘

Reading and writing about sustainable development in 2019 can be tough going, with a seemingly unending series of headlines suggesting that we as a society are lagging behind in the race to achieve our goals and that the deleterious effects of climate change are looming closer and closer, if not already upon us.

So when good news of any kind comes along, it can often be something to cling to – and perhaps even more devastating if that news is not what it seems. This up and down emotional trajectory describes my response to the clean-up operation launched last year to remove the plastic waste from the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, which ran into difficulties early this year.

The story is not yet over, though, and there are lessons to be learned for scientists working on issues related to sustainability more generally – so perhaps a positive outcome is still to come.

For those unaware, plastic pollution, both small and large, often ends up in the ocean, where gyres – or ocean currents – preferentially carry the waste products to certain areas, where it accumulates. These patches are hard to delineate, since unlike the images of islands of plastic bottles and grocery bags sometimes portrayed in the media, the plastic concentration is relatively low (4 particles per cubic metre), but the patch – which may be as large as 15,000,000 square kilometres – likely represents the largest waste accumulation in the ocean.

The open ocean, while home to diverse ecosystems and vitally important to many food networks, is a challenging thing to govern. Since it is not owned by any given country, the responsibility to clean up waste accumulating within the seas is nigh on impossible to assign. It’s a classic problem of ‘the commons’ – shared resources, like the ocean or the atmosphere, that many users need but none own, can be overexploited and depleted. Resolving those issues can be challenging at best.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start

So, in 2012, enter the Ocean Cleanup Project. At a TED talk, the 18-year-old inventor Boyan Slat laid out a plan to use floating booms to gradually gather up the waste in an efficient manner. Investors were intrigued, and the project took off quickly; billionaires funding it allowed for it to be deployed in mid-2018, rapid progress by any standard. The clean-up attempt had begun in earnest.

Quickly, though, problems arose; the system of floating booms couldn’t withstand the storms in the open ocean, and by January 2019 the first clean-up system had been towed to Hawaii for repairs after teething problems.

For some scientists, problems with the system had been evident from the start. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, research oceanographers unaffiliated with the project, analysed the project and found major issues. While there was communication between the scientists and the engineers involved with the project, and some of the issues raised were addressed, the two oceanographers still maintained that while the aim was laudable, the design was not as accomplished. Despite this, the project went ahead, and the concerns of the scientists proved to be well founded.

Clearly, this is a well-intentioned project. But perhaps just as clear is that a communications gulf existed between the scientists and the project developers. And therein lies the key question: how can scientists involved in sustainability issues best communicate their thoughts to private sector projects aiming to solve those issues? It certainly seems unlikely that the Ocean Cleanup will be the last case where such communication matters.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that in some cases private investors and entrepreneurs have stepped in with big ideas to solve problems of the commons. It’s clear that in many cases billionaires have lofty ambitions beyond the business that made them rich – both Jeff Bezos at Amazon at Tesla’s Elon Musk have moved into space exploration, and for individuals with such a mindset the idea of ‘saving the world’ might well appeal. They may also consider themselves less limited by regulation and national borders than scientists and government.

In fact, there’s more than just regulation and borders that hold back some ideas. The precautionary principle, both in unwritten and legal contexts, prevents some action where it is unclear if that action could result in harm to the public. This is often applied to geoengineering ideas, since the long-term implications may not be well known. A private project to dump iron sulphate into the ocean to encourage plankton growth and thus a draw-down of Carbon Dioxide in 2012 was cited as falling foul of these principles, having not established the long-term risk of seeding the ocean in this way.

The slower pace of academic research, …, makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late

At the same time, however, there is an increasing sense of urgency around many sustainability questions. The slower pace of academic research, the painstaking process of ensuring reproducibility in findings, and the need to establish long term effects of potential solutions to climate or sustainability issues makes it ever more appealing for private individuals to skip those steps and spend a fortune to fix something now, rather than wait until it’s too late.

I can sympathise with that view. It’s well-meaning, and solving a problem is better than sitting on the sidelines, or worse profiting from it. Moreover, hindsight is 20:20, so if a solution only becomes problematic after it is deployed, then those behind it can always argue that they did what they could in advance. That must be balanced though with an abundance of caution, and perhaps this is where scientists can help.

I would argue that we should be realistic – solutions will come from all sectors of society, and private individuals and entrepreneurs may well be the ones leading the charge. While it shouldn’t be incumbent upon research scientists alone to ensure their voices are heard by private projects, we shouldn’t shy away; building bridges, especially in the form of communication channels, would be of great benefit. Goldstein and Martini did a great service to science by reaching out and making their voices heard, even if they might have been perceived as naysayers.

We might not be able to change the minds of those leading private initiatives, but we can at least provide them with the most information possible to make their decisions.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website