Geology for Global Development

Industry

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.

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 robertemberson.com

Wearing the Earth Down: The Environmental Cost of Fashion

Public Domain (https://pixabay.com/en/color-textile-fabric-tissue-2532495/)

Eloise Hunt is an Earth science student at Imperial College London, and coordinator of the GfGD University group there. Today we publish her first guest article for the GfGD blog, exploring the environmental cost of fashion.

When we think of pollution, we imagine raw sewage pumped into rivers, open-cast mines or oil spills. We don’t often think of our inconspicuous white shirt or new jeans.  But, the overall impact that the fashion industry has on our planet is shocking.  The production of clothing has been estimated to account for 10% of total carbon impact. The fashion industry has been argued to be “one of the greatest polluters in the world, second only to oil“, although there is a lack of data to verify this.

Following London Fashion Week 2017, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Whilst geoscience may not seem to link to fashion, once you look closer at the production and environmental costs of textiles, you can see they are coupled with situations where geoscientists may be involved. Geoscience alone cannot improve the world.  But, through collaborations between geoscientists, engineers and policy makers, real changes can take place.

The lack of sustainability in fashion can be blamed on four major factors.  Firstly, there is enormous energy consumption associated with clothing.  Production is concentrated in countries such as Bangladesh and China. Factories are powered by coal before garments are shipped to the rest of the world.  It is difficult to find reliable data on how much fuel is used to transport clothes.  Yet, we do know that in the US only 2% of clothing is domestically produced and globally 90% of fabrics are transported by cargo ship  (read more).  One of these ships can produce as much atmospheric pollution as 50 million cars in just one year.

Another major factor is cheap synthetic fibres increasingly replacing natural cotton or wool. Polyester and nylon are both synthetic, non-biodegradable, energy intensive and made from petrochemicals.  Polyester is rapidly increasing in value and is now in over half of all clothing. Nylon is absorbent and breathable making it a popular choice for sportswear manufacturers.  But, nylon production forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Viscose is another synthetic fibre which is derived from wood pulp; the material’s popularity in fashion has caused deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.  These countries are home to rainforests, often described as the ‘lungs of the earth’, acting as our most effective carbon sink and oxygen source.

Even stepping away from synthetics, cotton is hardly innocent.  It is incredibly water intensive accounting for 2.6% of global water use. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the average cotton t-shirt. Furthermore, 99.3% of cotton growth uses fertilisers, which can cause runoff and eutrophication of waterways.  Uzbekistan, the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world, is an important example of ‘cotton catastrophe’.  In the 1950s, two rivers were diverted from the Aral Sea as a source of irrigation for cotton production.  As the sea dried up, it also became over-salinated and laden with fertiliser and pesticides as a result of agricultural runoff. Contaminated dust from the desiccated lake-bed saturated the air, creating a public health crisis with some studies linking this to abnormally high cancer rates. Groundwater up to 150 m deep has been polluted with pesticides and regional climate has become more extreme with colder winters and hotter summers.  Currently, water levels in the Aral are less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago (Fig. 1). Whilst this is a dramatic example of cotton farming, environmental problems have  occurred in other locations.

 

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Credit: NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. PUBLIC DOMAIN

The final environmental issue with fashion is responsible consumption and production (SDG 11).  Water problems in cotton producing areas cannot be fixed without consumers being held responsible for ecological impacts in the producing areas.  Globally, 44% of water used for cotton growth and processing goes towards exports.  High demand produces 150 billion items of clothing annually, which equates to 20 new items per person every year. Then, on average, each garment is worn only 7 times before being dumped in landfill.  In the UK alone, £30 billion worth of clothing is buried unused in our closets.

Figure 2- Expanding childrens trousers to minimise clothes waste (Credit: Petit Pli website http://petitpli.com)

Faced with issues of energy consumption, the rise of synthetics, water consumption and fast fashion, it’s easy to feel powerless but with increased scrutiny come sustainable solutions. The UK James Dyson Award was recently bestowed upon the student inventor of Petit Pli, innovative children’s clothing with pleats which allows it to grow with children from four months to three years old (Fig. 2).  This could help tackle clothes waste and is a small yet significant thread of hope.  On an individual level, when you need new clothes opting for Fair Trade or organic fabrics is a simple way to minimise pesticide pollution and, in the case of cotton, reduce water consumption. Or, better yet choose second hand, vintage or upcycled items to prevent processing of more virgin fibres.

Fashion is not yet sustainable. We as consumers hold enormous power to persuade brands to make products that are clean, of high-quality and worth wearing.  People need to be taking fashion more seriously, not less.

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

Diamonds aren’t Forever

Boom & Bust in the Namib Desert

 

Namibia is mostly desert. Like its neighbour South Africa, the country was gifted with diamond-bearing Kimberlites. The Sperrgebiet (or “forbidden territory”), where the diamonds are concentrated, is strictly off-limits to the public. Namibia’s natural resources have played an important role in shaping the development of this inhospitable landscape.

Rumours of diamonds began trickling out of Namibia towards the end of the 19th century, but the isolated, underpopulated region remained under most people’s radar. It wasn’t until 1908 that a man called August Staunch, who managed part of a railway line running through the Namib desert, took a punt and asked his men to keep an eye out for shining stones. When one of his workers dutifully presented him with a rough diamond, he snapped up the licensing rights to the area without delay. His decision turned out to be very sensible indeed.

DSCF3996

The now disused railway line running through the Namib desert

The Kimberlite pipes that carried the ancient gems up from deep in the Earth’s lithosphere have been weathered away by howling desert winds, leaving diamonds glinting across the red sand. Staunch’s area turned out to be teeming with undiscovered diamonds; a man could strike it rich by simply crawling around on his hands and knees in the moonlight.

One of the only roads to infiltrate the sand dunes runs to a small port called Luderitz. The town is a lone beacon on this stretch of treacherous coastline, dubbed “the gates of hell” by Portuguese sailors. Following the diamond discoveries, Luderitz became a boomtown. The stock exchange was housed in the Kopp Hotel and the barmaids were paid in diamonds when the cash ran out. The Germans moved in and built a bowling alley, shortly followed by a gymnasium and a ballroom. Water was shipped from Cape Town by the ton to feed the artificial oasis. The hospital also boasted Namibia’s first X-Ray machine – although it was primarily used for catching diamond smugglers.  There seemed to be no end to the flow of diamonds from the sands.

DSCF3864

Ships sail close to Luderitz port, a lone beacon on a long stretch of deserted coastline

World War I may have seemed a world (or at least a hemisphere) away from here, but the resulting slump in global diamond sales had a damning effect on this party in the desert. Just as the industry was beginning to recover, World War II hit, and superior reserves were uncovered further south. The death warrant of the Sperrgebeit was finally signed when the company headquarters were transferred to Orangemund in 1943.

The boomtowns became ghost towns, abandoned to the march of encroaching sand dunes. Standing testament to the glory and greed of the boom years, these towns now draw in the odd tourist, and Brian Cox (he flew into Kolmanskop ghost town to make some spurious link between sand dunes and the second law of thermodynamics in his globetrotting BBC series!)

DSCF3935

Abandoned houses are filled with sand. The decaying roof rafters allow sunlight to shine through

DSCF3881

Sand fills up a home, wedging the door open

The rights to the region now belong to NAMDEB – a company jointly owned by the Namibian government and De Beers Ltd. The remaining diamonds are easy to find, so the region is still closed to the public – trespassing is met with a not insignificant £500 fine or one year’s imprisonment (your choice!).

DSCF3981

Sign warning that “Diamond theft hurts us all”

DSCF3811

An old sign warns the public against entering the Sperrgebeit

The diamond industry has left the region both scarred but spared of over-use. Most of the Sperrgebiet is simply acting as a ‘buffer zone’, and so remains largely untouched. The areas where the diamonds occur, however, have suffered considerable damage. Some of the open-pit mines are being re-vegetated, and it looks like the area will slowly open up to tourists in the coming decades, providing new opportunities for a no longer forbidden Sperrgebiet.