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Thursday, November 3, 2011

International Development & Geoscience

At last month's Geological Society of America meeting, there were a number of talks on the role that the geosciences can play in international development.  The presentations were fantastic and challenging, and I think you'll agree.

First off, the Darcy lecture was given this year by Stephen Silliman, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Notre Dame University.  He spoke about the work they have been doing in Benin, west Africa, where they are working to obtain reliable, long term hydrologic data on the quality of the water.  He spoke of the conditions of the country, where many lack access to clean drinking water, and sewage is often not treated appropriately.  Consequently, many of the problems related to water quality are in fact caused by contamination of wells and streams by human and animal waste.  He spoke about the need to work with the local people in a long term relationship, where the local people come to an ownership of the changes that are needed.  But cultural norms are difficult to change.  I was deeply impressive with his passion to help the people of Benin; it was clear that he was not only interested in scientific data on water, but also he struck me as being very missional about helping these people by using his professional abilities.  It is wholly appropriate for Stephen to be selected as the 2011 Lecturer for the National Groundwater Association's Darcy Lecture Series.  In my opinion this reflects very well on the leadership who selected him for this prestigious appointment.

Additionally, there was an entire session on the subject that took place on Tuesday morning during the meeting.  The session was very well attended with about ~50 people in the audience on average.  I won't attempt to summarize all of the talks here, but the abstracts are all well worth reading.  Jeffrey Greenberg, presiding over the session, began with a discussion of the critical importance of geoscience in issues of resource development, economics, politics, natural disasters, sustainability, and even "the destiny of nations".  Paradoxically, however, he also stated that geoscientists appear to lag behind people in other disciplines in serving in these roles, and instead these roles are filled by engineers, social scientists, and biologists.  As I listened to the talks, some very common themes emerged: 1) professionals will only succeed through working with local people; 2) professionals will only succeed through long term relationships; 3) many of the obstacles are simply needing to properly deal with waste (both solid and wastewater); 4) people are working on these issues all over the world; 5) expertise in hydrogeology is necessary; and 6) behavioral change is difficult but absolutely necessary.  Fortunately, a new NGO has recently been developed, Hydrogeologists without Borders, to help centralize information & resources.  There were talks about Guatemala, Nigeria, Kosova, Dakar, Costa Rica, and Arabia.  One of the more fascinating talks was by James Clark, professor at Wheaton College, who described his work to create inexpensive geophysical equipment to be used for groundwater exploration.  I was amazed at how cheaply he was able to purchase the necessary parts and construct equipment for resistivity and seismic refraction measurements, for less than about $250 each.  He showed data comparing his equipment to more expensive (~$5000-20,000) equipment, and the results brought a smile to every face in the crowd.  He also wrote the software that can be run on an inexpensive laptop computer.  Imagine how many of these sets of geophysical equipment could be purchased & put to use in the developing world for only a few tens of thousands of dollars.  The potential here is staggering.  Another talk was given by a senior geology major in my department here at Olivet Nazarene University, Sam Smidt, who spoke about his work to test the ability of a small-scale version of a biosand filter to remove E. coli from water.  He gave a great presentation and I doubt anyone was able to tell that he's an undergrad!  Few undergrads give talks at GSA, so we're very proud of him and the work he did with my colleague Dr. Kevin Brewer.

The session proposal was written up last December by Jeffery Greenberg, my friend and colleague at Wheaton College, and first sponsored by the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.  As current President of the organization, I couldn't be more proud of Jeff's work to make this session happen.  I hope he'll go for it again this coming year, and that more geoscientists will get involved in presenting and attending.  International development is a place where the abilities of many geoscientists meet with the world's deep needs.