Geology for Global Development

Geology for Global Development

Speleology and local development

Križna jama cave, in Slovenia

Many of us seek adventures, new experiences and sights in far flung places, but very often there are beautiful wonders right on our doorstep. In today’s post, Barbara Zambelli Azevedo highlights how the promotion of local geological regions can be a valuable and effective way to encourage development and instil a sense of pride in local communities. 

Plato said in the Allegory of the Cave that men could only be free from ignorance when they leave the shadow world and see the real world outside. For me, caves have the opposite meaning. My first time in a cave at the end of 2011 changed me forever. To see the beauty hidden in the dark, countless endogenous species and curious formations in such a delicate and unique environment, thrilled me.

I was touched by speleology and I think that other people may feel the same. Even though karst areas are common throughout the world, still many people don’t know anything about caves, nor have they ever been in one. I believe in valorisation and promotion of speleological heritage in karstic areas as a way to promote sustainable territorial development. This could be done combining four different approaches:

Tourism: Implementation of a speleological management plan allowing and regulating public visitation, seeking at the same time the conservation of the cave, its surroundings and its attributes (physical and biological) as well as the transformations it might need to receive the general public. These transformations could be stairs, handrail, lights, bridges and walkways. It is important to consult the local community before starting any kind of business to know if the chosen cave has a special meaning, if it represents a sacred place or it is part of their culture.

Conservation: Conservation practices must be adopted to ensure the preservation of the speleological heritage. Cave guides should come preferably from the local community. They must receive appropriate training and instruction about security during exploration and conservation of the karst. In Brazil we use the motto:

“In a cave nothing is taken away except photographs, nothing is left but tracks and nothing is killed except time.”

Parks: Implementation of parks in areas where caves are concentrated in a given territory. This territory can be at local or regional level, and the park administration takes charge of the preservation and management of the speleological heritage.

Education: Promote local empowerment through science communication and environmental education. As I mentioned before, there are not a lot of people who know about speleology. In this context it is important to assess the knowledge of the local community when it comes to karst, caves and their formation, as well as their unique fauna, the delicate and complex hydrologic system. When a population is aware of its heritage, is more likely they will ensure its preservation.

Finally, it is crucial to highlight that before starting any kind of business regarding speleology, many different interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies must be carried on the areas, in order to select the most appropriate ones for developing tourism or any other activities.

What would you do in the minute before an Earthquake? Do our planet’s environmental limits hamper socio-economic development? Find out in Jesse Zondervan’s Feb – Mar 7 2018 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

What would you do in the minute before an Earthquake? Do our planet’s environmental limits hamper socio-economic development? Find out in Jesse Zondervan’s Feb  – Mar 7 2018 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. Here’s a round-up of Jesse’s selections for the last month:

In the late afternoon of 16 February people in Mexico City celebrate Chinese New Year when they hear an earthquake alarm. If you ever wondered what it is like to experience an earthquake, you should watch the videos in Austin Elliot’s The Trembling Earth blog. What do people do in the 78 seconds of earthquake early warning?

Next to stories on risk of landslide-induced floods in Papua New Guinea, the cost of waiting for a volcanic eruption to happen and other disaster risk discussion, this month is full of good articles on sustainability:

Earth has environmental limits, can we all live a good life in it?

Dan O’Neill from the University of Leeds notes that to achieve social thresholds, countries have needed to exceed multiple biophysical boundaries. He asks how we can ever live well within our planet’s natural boundaries and what this means for sustainable development.

Professor Steve Cohen at Columbia University’s Earth Institute sees a trend that may help with this sustainability problem. An increasing number of young people are drawn to sustainability education and the role of the sustainability professional is emerging. Steve argues these sustainability professionals must be scientifically literate and focus on the physical world.

More in this month, entrepreneurs start seeing opportunities in predicting climate change risks, geologists have found rock containing plastic, and a new massive open online course (MOOC) encourages its students to play a disaster risk reduction game.

As always, there’s a lot to read this month. This time I highlighted in bold the articles I think you should read first, so go ahead!


Is it possible for everyone to live a good life within our planet’s limits? By Dan O’Neill at The Conversation

The Emerging Sustainability Professional by Steve Cohen at State of the Planet

What does climate change hold in store for European cities? Creating a guidebook for the future & Envisioning climate-friendly cities at Future Earth

Geopolicy: Combating plastic pollution – research, engagement and the EU Plastic Strategy by Chloe Hill at EGU’s GeoLog blog

How can studying the past, such as life in Maya cities, help the world to solve modern problems? See ‘Creating a guidebook to the future’ Credit: VoY-TeC (distributed via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Climate Change Adaptation

What Land Will Be Underwater in 20 Years? Figuring It Out Could Be Lucrative by Brad Plumer at The New York Times

Why scientists have modelled climate change right up to the year 2300 by Dmitry Yumashev at The Conversation

Can Soil Help Combat Climate Change? By Renee Cho at State of the Planet

The Challenges of Drought Prediction by Zengchao Hao at Eos

What are the challenges of drought prediction? Credit: PublicDomainPictures/18042 images (distributed via Pixabay [CC0 1.0])


New Massive Open Online Course on Natural Disasters at Eos

Citizen outreach and river education in India by Beth Fisher at Little River Research

The Complex Interface between the Public and Science by Cary Funk at Scientific American

Volcanic risk

Rehearsing for eruptions by Jessica Ball at the AGU’s Magma Cum Laude

The Costs Of Waiting For A Volcano To Erupt by Dr Peter Ward at Forbes

Earthquake risk

78 seconds of Earthquake Early Warning by Austin Elliot at the AGU’s The Trembling Earth

Damage Assessment by Laser Could Focus Postearthquake Response by Laura G Shields at Eos

How do you plan for volcanic hazards? How much does it cost? Credit: Kanenori/260 images (distributed via Pixabay [CC0 1.0]). 

Disaster Risk

An emerging crisis? Valley blocking landslides in the Papua New Guinea highlands by Dave Petley at the AGU’s The Landslide Blog

Creeping danger: Landslide threatens Peruvian village, especially when the earth quakes by Jane Palmer at Earth Magazine

Geophysicists and atmospheric scientists partner to track typhoons’ seismic footprints at Science Daily

UN launches effort to collect data on disaster losses at UNISDR

External Opportunities

Online Course Environmental Justice starts 12 March at Earth System Governance

Call for Papers – 2018 Utrecht Conference on Earth System Governance at Earth System Governance

Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment Seeks Interns for Summer 2018 at State of the Planet

New and Returning Employers at All Ivy Career Fair Indicate Growth in the Sustainability Job Market at State of the Planet

Check back next month for more picks!

Follow Jesse Zondervan on Twitter: @JesseZondervan.
Follow us on Twitter (
@Geo_Dev) & Facebook.


The Sustainability Argument for Open Access Publishing

The Sustainability Argument for Open Access Publishing

Those who follow the work of GfGD, either via posts on this blog or more direct engagement, will know that there are a multitude of connections between geoscience and the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are almost impossible to disentangle from resource use and environmental pressures, subjects which are themselves cornerstones of modern geoscience.

While this may be the case, a key question that I’ve heard from some colleagues goes something like this: “My research project might have implications for sustainability in the long term, but my primary research isn’t focused on the SDGs. How can I make a difference to attaining the goals?”

It’s true that many earth scientists aren’t specifically working on addressing the SDGs; the actual action is often left to policy makers and NGOs. So what’s the best way to help, if your work might have some input? One answer comes to mind quickly – get your work out to these stakeholders through science communication. However, this isn’t to everyone’s taste, and not every scientist is comfortable in the social-media communication sphere. It’s often tricky to reach all the potential stakeholders all at once, so is there an alternative solution that doesn’t require devoting too much time to public-facing communication?

Yes – you can publish open access.

Open access journals – where there aren’t subscription fees to view an article, and costs are covered by external agencies or through article processing charges – have disrupted science publishing significantly over the last 15 years. The question over open access research journals is a complex and fraught one; many scientists feel strongly one way or the other, and large scale legal battles are playing out between governments and traditional publishing houses in relation to demands for open access science.

I’m not taking a position as to whether open access is a good model for science or researchers, but instead I’d suggest that it can help attain SDGs – particularly if it’s geoscience research that’s published for all to see.

As an early career researcher, I tended to think that open access might not make such a difference to my own work; the public wouldn’t be interested in my extremely niche topic of research. I didn’t consider that there might be different groups of readers for whom geoscience research might make more impact than for my friends and family. Government researchers and NGO analysts working in the developing world vitally need access to data and science, but their budgets may not stretch to pay for access to subscription journals. These are the important stakeholders for the attainment of SDGs, and these are the end-users of open access research we should consider more.

Let’s use mining as an example. Given the same absolute amount of mineral or fossil resources, historical evidence suggests that a country in the global south would likely only find 1/5 of the amount that a rich country would. Exploration and utilisation of a nation’s mineral wealth requires a clear understanding of resource science, which may be lacking in developing states due to lack of access to published research. This is such a significant issue that the World Bank in 2014 set out to spend $1 billion to produce geological maps of Africa’s natural resources, for governments there to better use their resources.

For the global south, a lack of data surrounding their own resources – particularly fossil fuels – puts them at a huge disadvantage when negotiating contracts with multinational petrochemical or mining corporations. Global firms like Exxon or Shell have huge, dedicated R&D arms, with larger research budgets than many developing countries can muster. The effect is that the two parties have ‘asymmetric information’; according to economics, this situation almost always leads to less-than-optimal outcomes, and it’s normally the party with less information that loses out. In real terms, this could mean mining firms negotiating contracts that might underplay the risk and pollution from extraction for local communities.

Using resources sustainably and carefully is at the heart of efforts to attain the sustainability goals. Water quality suffers when pollution is extensive; poverty and inequality are exacerbated by inefficient and corrupt management of income from mining or drilling; the effective use of taxes from mining and fossil fuel extraction can help build sustainable infrastructure for a greener future.

Open access geological data allows governments in the global south to make more informed decisions about their own national resources, and fosters a framework of openness that encourages greater accountability. It prevents vulture companies exploiting those nations, too, which is a key aspect in the fight for global equality.

Another classic geological field of study is natural hazards, and here too open data can be crucially important. According to a study published by the Open Data Institute,

“Open data can help to inform evidence-based policy-making and the design of government services. It offers policy-makers a source of information to identify wasteful spending, better target resources and design more responsive services. Although open data can be useful to most services, to date it has been especially relevant in the areas of healthcare, education, disaster risk management and transportation.”

The global south are likely to face more severe threats to life and economic growth as a result of climate change than developed states (e.g. this report by DARA), and this potential risk is exacerbated when governments lack sufficient data to make informed policy decisions. Climate change has the potential to adversely impact almost all of the sustainability goals, from resolving inequality, to food security, to life on land and in the ocean. The global scale of climate change makes it in everyone’s interest to encourage smart policy making in every country – and thus a great incentive for scientists and policy-makers to support open-access research.

Perhaps there are other more important incentives for earth scientists to publish in other journals; but in future, perhaps we should consider the ramification of our publishing choices for sustainability. Maybe the ‘social impact’ factor of research is more relevant than the publication impact factor.

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

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

Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

Heather Britton: China’s Water Diversion Project

China has enjoyed economic growth over the past decades, bringing undoubted prosperity to the country. But exponential industrialisation and rapid growth comes at a significant environmental cost. The nation is heavily dependent on coal-fired power, making it one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and it’s thirst for development is a drain on vital resources, including water. In today’s post, Heather explores how China’s geography accentuates an anthropogenic problem. 

When travelling from the North to the South of China there are number of trends that can be observed – dialects change, the dominance of noodles is replaced with a preference for rice and, crucially, the climate becomes more humid. The South typically receives excessive rainfall, often leading to devastating flooding, whilst the North dries due to the thirst of industry and a booming population. China’s water diversion project aims to solve both problems with one monumental feat of engineering – by diverting 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually from South to North via a network of canals and tunnels. I’ll explore the impact that this is having on China and its people, and whether it is a sustainable solution to the disparity in water supply across the country.

Water shortage is a constant concern in the North, with the groundwater stores that support the region dwindling to a fraction of what is required to allow the cities and industries centred here to thrive. In addition, more than half of China’s 50,000 rivers have disappeared in the last 20 years. Having experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past few decades, Beijing is on the brink of a water crisis. In the South, flooding is the primary hydrological issue, exacerbated by the drainage of lakes and the damming of rivers for construction. It was commented in the 1950s by Chairman Mao that ‘The south has plenty of water, but the north is dry. If we could borrow some, that would be good’. This statement is heralded as the idea that has grown to become what is now ‘The world’s most ambitious water-transfer program’.

The project is not merely a fantasy – construction on a number of the pathways is already complete or nearing completion, and already over 70% of Beijing’s water is transferred from the South as a result of this project. Costing $62 billion, there is a clear driving force for the project – the thirsty North is running out of water fast, and although an extreme move, it is true that this project will provide some vestige of relief – but for how long, and at what cost?

Millions have benefitted from the water transfer and it certainly is a solution to the disparity in water supply between the North and the South of the country, but it is also arguably one of the worst. China’s demand for water is growing so quickly that even before the project’s completion in 2050 further solutions are likely to be required, and industrialisation along diversion routes poses a serious pollution threat. Salinization  of some waters heading North seems inevitable. An even larger concern is that the South may no longer have enough water to spare – the Han river, an important tributary to the Yangtze, is planned to have 40% of its water diverted to the North, but the towns and cities situated along its course are already experiencing water shortages. Furthermore, 345,000 villagers have been displaced from their homes to make way for the new water courses, often to lands and property far inferior to what they were promised and what they left behind. It is clear that the project is far from sustainable.

It would be wrong, however, to say that the Chinese government is doing nothing to reduce the impact of the scheme. Addressing environmental concerns in the Danjiangkou reservoir, a $3 billion ecological remediation package has been put together, and the water diversion project has allowed the groundwater reservoirs in Beijing to rebound by at least 0.52m. The environmental threat persists, however, and it seems unlikely that retrospective measures will be able to dissipate all of the environmental risk. By considering more sustainable solutions, the impact on the land and the people of China could have been drastically reduced. The Chinese vice minister of Housing and Urban-rural development has called the project unsustainable, acknowledging that, in the case of many cities, recycled water could replace diverted water. If efforts were focussed on water desalination technology and the collection of more rainwater, rather than the creation of multiple colossal aqueducts with unsavoury environmental consequences, then water resource management could be tackled in a far more sustainable manner.

Effective water conservation is something that is becoming a larger and larger problem for the Global South, particularly in the drier parts of the world. The water diversion project acts as an interesting case study, and shows the repercussions of dramatic engineering solutions to water resource problems. Although possible from an engineering perspective, forcing a change in the hydrological system of a country is rarely without its complications (and substantial expense). Lessons can be learned from the water diversion project, and future Global South nations should think twice before entering into any project of such scale without considering the full implications or other, more sustainable options. Doing this would help towards the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 6 (clean water and sanitation).