Geology for Global Development


The ethical questions behind the school climate strike. Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems? Jesse Zondervan’s February 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

The ethical questions behind the school climate strike. Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems? Jesse Zondervan’s February 2019 #GfGDpicks #SciComm

Each month, Jesse Zondervan picks his favourite posts from geoscience and development blogs/news which cover the geology for global development interest. This month’s picks include: The ethical questions behind the school climate strike; Military worries about the fight against sea-level rise – how will you help? Do we have a place in earth’s ecosystems?

School climate strikes

As school climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg spread across the world in the past month, adults are starting to ask ethical questions.

If one would prefer climate activism to focus on conventional electoral politics, rather than civil disobedience, Rupert Read argues one should question the premise that our societies are fully democratic. If adults have failed, how can we support and listen to our children rather than telling them what to do?

The idea that young people are the key to making positive change to the way we live in our environment is not a new one, but did you ever wonder why? Steve Cohen at Columbia University’s Earth Institute considers how the experiences of the next generation support a survivalist ethic and a change in environmental politics.

The fight against sea-level rise

If the urgency displayed by our children leaves you hungry to roll up your own sleeves, paradoxically it may appear you could help by joining the army to help fight sea-level rise. At a conference on climate change and security at The Hague defence leaders from around the world expressed worry not only for a risk for conflict risks but also of stress on military capacity in all countries with a coastline, not just the poorer nations.

Alternatively, if you have a more entrepreneurial spirit, I would recommend looking at entrepreneurial opportunities for addressing climate change in the developing world.

Sea-level rise and it’s cost is a hot topic this month, with climatologist Radley Horton testifying on capitol hill about sea level rise.

“There has been a lot of focus on whether worst-case scenario for 2100 is 4.3 feet, six feet, or even eight feet of sea level rise,” he said. “Even the most optimistic scenario imaginable—of one foot of sea level rise by 2100—would have direct and profound impacts.”

Indeed, the house market has already responded and cost US coastal home owners nearly 16 billion in property value. Buyout programs in flood-prone areas are becoming more common, even as they come with their own shortcomings.

The insurance industry recognises that investors, lenders, insurers and policymakers undertake significant risk management efforts to minimise rising losses from climate-related hazards. Might more geoscientists be needed here?

As usual, I have many more interesting topics on offer for you, such as: humans have been present in ecosystems for a long stretch of time, so is there a place for us? Check out all stories below!

School climate strikes – an ethical debate

School climate strikes: why adults no longer have the right to object to their children taking radical action by Rupert Read at The Conversation

Youth Strike for Climate and the Ethics of Climate Policy by Steve Cohen at State of the Planet

Climate Adaptation

How Entrepreneurs Can Help Developing Countries Hard Hit by Climate Change by Georgina Campbell Flatter at Entrepeneur

Prepare now for accelerating climate threats, military officials warn by Laura Goering at Thomson Reuters Foundation

There’s a place for us: New research reveals humanity’s roles in ecosystems from the Santa Fe Institute at ScienceDaily

Sand from glacial melt could be Greenland’s economic salvation from University of Colorado Boulder at ScienceDaily

Climate Change Is Having a Major Impact on Global Health by Tanya Lewis at Scientific American

How pollution and greenhouse gases affect the climate in the Sahel by Alessandra Giannini at The Conversation

Investors and lenders need better tools to manage climate risk to homes, mortgages and assets, finds new research at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

The fight against sea-level rise

Lamont Climatologist Testifies on Capitol Hill About Sea Level Rise by Marie Denoia Aronsohn at State of the Planet

Rising Seas Soaked Home Owners for $16 Billion over 12 Years by Thomas Frank at E&E News

Leave No House Behind in Flood Buyout Programs, Group Says by Daniel Cusick at E&E News

What rising seas mean for local economies from Stanford University at ScienceDaily

Predicting impacts of climate change

The Ocean Is Running Out of Breath, Scientists Warn by Laura Poppick at Scientific American

Disaster Risk

Large-scale hazard indication mapping for avalanches at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF

Norway’s Arctic islands at risk of ‘devastating’ warming: report by Alister Doyle at Thomson Reuters

Observing Volcanoes from Space by Emily Underwood at EOS Earth and Space Science News

The U.S. May Finally Get an Early Warning System For Volcanoes by Robin George Andrews at Earther

Deep sea mining

Deep sea mining threatens indigenous culture in Papua New Guinea by John Childs at The Conversation


Check back next month for more picks!

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

Voice of the Future 2014

DSCN4606Voice of the Future‘ (yes I agree, the young scientist community are and should be an important voice of today!) is a fantastic event which has taken place for the past few years. It gathers young scientists from a number of disciplines, including geology, and enables them to put questions to senior Government Ministers in the UK, civil servants and MPs. These normally include the Minister for Science and Universities (currently Rt Hon David Willetts), his counterpart in HM Opposition (currently Rt Hon Liam Byrne), the Science and Technology Select Committee and a senior Scientific Advisor to the Government (this year the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport). This opportunity for young scientists to pose questions and raise issues with these members of the political sphere is an invaluable opportunity to engage with the policy making process.

This year Geology for Global Development will be well-represented at the event, with Joel Gill (Founding Director) and Rosalie Tostevin (Himalayas Programme Officer) invited by the Geological Society of London to attend and (hopefully) keep attending politicians on their toes. This is a very special opportunity for us as an organisation. We have had an opportunity to submit a formal question via the Geological Society of London:

“In what ways does the UK Government utilise national scientific capabilities (and development budgets) to strengthen the scientific capacity of less economically developed countries?”

This question was written with the context of seeing first-hand the fantastic work of the Guatemalan national hazards agency, but also the struggles they face due to a lack of the funds and resources required to invest in the necessary scientific instruments and resources.

We are also keen to listen to our members and readers thoughts on what issues to raise. The questioning process does not allow us to ask multiple questions, however there may be the opportunity to raise things outside of the formal questioning session (an opportunity utilised by ourselves in 2012, resulting in a question being submitted to a select committee inquiry) and through ‘follow-on’ questions.

We’d therefore encourage our young geoscientist audience (18-35) to submit questions (as clear and concise as possible) that you would like to raise with those responsible for advising on, constructing and scrutinising UK science policy. Please leave your questions in the comments section below. As already noted, many of these may not be able to be asked, but the information will be invaluable in understanding the issues.

Guest Blog: Death By Corruption

541489_10151445593846464_1329303192_nEkbal Hussain is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, and helps to coordinate our group up there. He is a passionate advocate for disaster risk reduction and today writes about the relationship between corruption and earthquake fatalities.

It is no profound statement to say that earthquakes are extremely dangerous natural events and are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths annually. What is more contentious is my belief that no one needs to die from earthquakes at all.

Let me explain myself; most deaths from earthquakes are a result of the collapse of buildings and other man made structures such as bridges. We have the technical engineering expertise to build structures that withstand ground shaking during earthquakes.

Every year our understanding of the earthquake process increases but many important gaps remain, particularly on issues such as timing and location of future earthquakes. However, as Charles Richter mentions in his retirement speech: “For public safety we don’t need prediction, earthquake risk can be removed, almost completely, by proper building construction and regulation.” (1970)

So if we know the cause of earthquake deaths and what we need to do to minimise losses why do people still die in them? The answer to this question is by no means simple. Many factors contribute to losses during these events: insufficient knowledge of where all the earthquake generating faults are, cultural practices, uncertainties in hazard maps, poverty and poor building practices among others.

For this post I’d like to focus on the role of corruption in the building industry. The global construction industry was worth $8.7 trillion in 2012[1] and this is recognised to be the most corrupt segment of the global economy [2].

Spontaneous factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh resulted in 1129 deaths in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons – Rijans

Spontaneous factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh resulted in 1129 deaths in 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons – Rijans

Corruption takes the form of using inadequate and/or insufficient building materials, bribes to inspectors and civil authorities, substandard assembly methods and the inappropriate siting of buildings. Spontaneous building collapses even without earthquakes, such as the Saver factory collapse in Bangladesh last year which killed 1129 people, are a stark reminder of the consequences of construction oversight and a terrifying view into what could happen if there is an earthquake in these regions.

The 1999 Izmit earthquake (magnitude 7.4) in Turkey resulted in around 18,000 deaths. It was later shown that half of all the structures within the damage zone had failed to comply with building regulations [2].

The structural integrity of a building is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder.

–Nicholas Ambraseys & Roger Bilham–


Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham calculated that almost 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the last 3 decades occurred in countries that are poor and anomalously corrupt [3].

3D plot of earthquake deaths with corruption perception index and expectation index, i.e. are the countries more or less corrupt than expected. Source: Ambraseys, N. & Bilham, R., 2011

3D plot of earthquake deaths with corruption perception index and expectation index, i.e. are the countries more or less corrupt than expected. Source: Ambraseys, N. & Bilham, R., 2011

Corruption by itself is dangerous but when combined with poverty, it is disastrous. Corruption, poverty and ignorance essentially become indistinguishable for low income countries. And even if corrupt practices are eliminated these countries will have inherited a building stock that is poor quality and prone to failure in the next earthquake.

However, it’s not all bad news. There are some great examples of how reconstruction can take place under correct management and regulations to improve resilience to earthquakes. For example, in 2012 the Turkish government passed the Law on the Regeneration of Areas Under Disaster Risk. Under these new guidelines all buildings that are not up to current earthquake risk standards will be demolished and rebuilt. As a result 6.5 million high risk houses will be demolished over the next two decades [4].

The reconstruction of the Macedonian capital of Skopje after it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 is another great example. Not only was the entire infrastructure rebuilt to be earthquake-resistant, the city planning also ensured that the river Vardar was routed in order to control future flooding [5].

Achievements on this scale require strong governance and management, and transparent sectoral and local administration. With the rapid growth of cities into so-called megacities (>10 million population) often in high earthquake risk regions this is even more important. We have yet to have an earthquake that has killed a million people. But at the rate these cities are growing under limited to no management such an event might not be too far in the future.


[1] Global Construction 2025:  A Global Forecast for the construction industry to 2025 (2013)

[2] Global Construction 2020: A Global Forecast for the construction industry over the next decade to 2020. (2010)

[3] Ambraseys, N. & Bilham, R., Corruption Kills, 2011


[5] Vladimir B. Ladinski, Post 1963 Skopje earthquake reconstruction: Long term effects, 2010

Further Reading

If you have any questions for Ekbal, or want to comment on this blog – don’t forget you can do so using the box below. 

Building Peace and Cooperation Through Science and Academia

STRENGTHENING KABUL UNIVERSITY WORKSHOP: LEICESTER 2011 Credit: University of Leicester, used with permission.

Strengthening Kabul University Workshop: Leicester 2011
Credit: University of Leicester, used with permission.

In today’s blog post we discuss the role that both science and academia have in successfully bringing together stakeholders in areas where co-operation is essential, but challenging.

In December 2011 I was fortunate to attend a workshop in Leicester in which academics and researchers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan gathered with others from the UK to talk about strengthening the teaching of geoscience in Universities there. Much of the conversation was about the positive role that academia can play in rebuilding a conflict-torn country.

As I wrote about at the time, It has a huge role to play in nation building, with the potential to drive significant social and economic development. Universities generate knowledge through research, which can bring enormous benefits to various aspects of society. A university can also act as a peace builder – bringing together different ethnic groups and backgrounds and fostering dialogue, collaboration and peace. Graduates from the university go on to positions within government departments and politics itself, and thus universities can also develop and encourage good leadership.

Over the weekend I was reading further into this topic – focusing on water diplomacy in the Himalayan region. The Strategic Foresight Group have published a number of helpful documents on this topic. including The Himalayan Challenge (Strategic Foresight Group, 2010) and The Indus Equation (Strategic Foresight Group, 2011). As stated in the former:

“Cooperation [between multiple countries] on the water issue should be looked upon as a means to a peaceful co-existence. Joint water management offers the scope for people-to-people and/or expert-to-expert connections, thus creating a channel for peaceful dialogue irrespective of political and military developments.”  

Successful dialogue over issues such as water (but also hazard management, energy supply, environmental change) can serve as a gateway to address wider security issues. The Indus Equation (Strategic Foresight Group, 2011)  notes that ‘as India and Pakistan stand at the threshold of yet another attempt to further cooperation, ‘water’ – as was the case in 1951 – can provide an impetus to tackle larger issues like Kashmir.’

In addition to dialogue between scientists and academia enabling dialogue for wider purposes – it is also essential in itself. The Himalayan Challenge (Strategic Foresight Group, 2010) notes that water availability is estimated to decline (per capita) in India (as well as other countries along the Himalayas). This water scarcity is noted to have an impact on food availability, livelihoods in rural areas, desertification, soil erosion and population displacement/migration. Unless these challenges are addressed through multi-national cooperation there is a potential for conflict. Water flow, hazards and natural resources rarely stay within national boundaries – and so solutions must require dialogue, cooperation and collaborative research.

As many of you will know we are currently involved in a conference in the Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir (see Sustainable Resource Development in the Himalayas Conference is being held in Leh (June 2014) and will bring together academics, policy makers and others – from multiple countries (including India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh). With key topics of water resources, global environmental change, natural hazards and sustainable tourism – this event will serve as an important forum to share research and encourage further collaborative opportunities. Crucially it will facilitate the people-to-people and expert-to-expert connections that can encourage peaceful dialogue, building on previous cooperation by universities in the region.

GfGD Website - Himalayas Banner

Photo Credit: Rosalie Tostevin