Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Guest Blog: A Hydrogeologist’s Role in Redevelopment

Olivia Osicki is a fourth year MSci student at the University of Cambridge, and recently went to a seminar organised by the GfGD University Group there. The seminar, given by Elizabeth Sharpe of Mott Macdonald, examined the role of a hydrogeologist in the redevelopment of a nation after a major natural disaster. It looked at many of the challenges and difficulties that can be encountered in this nature of work. 

"With the dominance of oil and mining companies on our career horizons, it can often be challenging to think of a valid alternative for a job that uses geology. Elizabeth Sharpe, however, who came to speak to the Cambridge GfGD group, has found a way to incorporate geology and global development, in a mainstream career with the engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald.
Affected Region (Source: Wiki)

Elizabeth completed her Master’s in hydrogeology at Birmingham, joining Mott MacDonald upon graduation. For eleven months in 2007-2008 she worked in Aceh, (Sumatra, Indonesia), working with the American Red Cross as a consultant to rebuild water supplies for 46 communities in the area. The region was in the redevelopment stage following the disastrous impact of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake. The earthquake produced a 20m wave, killing 200,000 globally and leaving many families homeless and lacking adequate water supplies. Elizabeth’s role with the American Red Cross was to review available information about local water supplies, combining data from geophysics, boreholes, maps, and water quality analysis to identify available options and present them to local communities.

Global development and aid work is often glamorised in western society, and yet Elizabeth was keen to emphasise the challenges that accompany working in difficult areas with fragmented communities from a different cultural background. Furthermore, the number of aid agencies in the Aceh region, all with different agendas, meant that often there was a severe lack of communication between the organisations which resulted in wasted time and resources. Working in a region which had just emerged from conflict meant that communities often mistrusted one another, and the number of aid agencies they had to work with meant that they had little faith that anything useful would be achieved. A further problem was that local Acehnese people were aware of the large quantities of aid money available and so any work or legislation that was required was prone to overcharging and corruption. The effects of the tsunami three years before meant that the knowledge most relied on by aid agencies, that of local people, was lost or not relevant because so many villages had to be relocated.

There were technical challenges too, including contamination, inappropriate technology, and lack of basic infrastructure. Elizabeth’s biggest disappointment was that after locating an appropriate water source for a relocated village, a road was built by another aid agency through the spring and the water supply was lost.

It is all too easy to think of development work as glamorous and thrilling, but the day-to-day realities and challenges that can be encountered should not be underestimated."