Thursday 31 May 2012

Sense About Science

Sense about Science is a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of science and evidence on issues that matter to society. They work with the public and scientists to help root out dodgy science, and ensure the public are not mislead by things such as statistics, or claims made without evidence. 

Sense  about Science have a network of scientists (from nobel laureates to PhD students) who give an idea of their expertise and are then called upon to help respond to dubious claims or science in the press, give advice to certain groups when there is concern/worry, and engage in advocacy work (such as writing and signing open letters to bodies such as Parliament, the UN, World Health Organisation). You can sign up here if you want to join their list of scientists. They have a wide array of helpful resources such as a guide called 'making sense of statistics' and 'what is peer review?'.

Sense about Science also host workshops which help scientists to think about how best to work with the media and present their work - to avoid confusion, misrepresentation and misunderstandings. Having been on one of these recently, I definitely recommend them to young scientists, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. Their 'Standing up for Science - Media Workshop' offered a great opportunity to hear from and question academics with experience of working with the media, and those working for different aspects of the media (The Guardian and the BBC for example). The opportunity to engage in this discussion, share experiences and suggest ways to develop this work was really helpful and enjoyable.

Check out this fantastic organisation, and see how you can get involved!  

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Reminder: Write To Your MP

Clean water and access to good sanitation benefit many other areas of development. "When we get it right [water and sanitation], so much else follows" says Alan Duncan, UK Minister for International Development. Join our campaign to write to as many local MPs as possible to tell them that we believe it is right and good news that the Government is doubling the number of people it intends to reach with clean water and access to good sanitation. 

Monday 28 May 2012

Guest Blog: Groundwater Use and Challenges in South Asia

Donald John MacAllister is a PhD student at Imperial College London, undertaking research into saltwater intrusion - an important environmental and anthropogenic hazard for many communities around the world. He has a background in both geophysics and water management, with a focus on water supply and sanitation in the developing world. Today he shares about some of his experiences in South East Asia, and the challenges of supplying clean water...

Arsenic, Fluoride and Iron are major chemical contaminants that arise naturally in the groundwater systems of the Gangetic plains and affect huge populations in India and Bangladesh. 

Groundwater has been extensively exploited in large areas of South Asia in the last twenty years or so, in response to the vulnerability of surface water to contamination by chemical and microbiological contaminants.  The health problems related to surface water development are well documented. Surface water is more easily contaminated by microorganisms than groundwater. This occurs because the pathways for contamination are more direct and much quicker through surface runoff processes. Groundwater is particularly low in biological contamination because it is protected by the rock and sediments overlying the main aquifer. A lack of adequate sanitation compounds the problem. Infant mortality is a key indicator of the rate of water related disease and in South Asia this was (and often still is) extremely high. As a result a huge programme of groundwater development was pursued by UNICEF and the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) in Bangladesh in the 1970’s. It was assumed that groundwater provided a safe and relatively inexpensive source of drinking water. To this day little resource assessment is conducted before a well is sunk.

However in the early 1990’s doctors in West Bengal, India, began to identify the first cases of arsenic induced skin lesions. Eventually the source of these lesions was identified. The source was shallow groundwater contaminated by naturally occurring inorganic arsenic. Only recently has the full extent of the problem been realised. Bangladesh and India face a huge public health challenge in addressing this issue. It is estimated that between 35 and 77 million people suffer from arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh alone.

I recently spent a year in the Gangetic plains working with people directly affected by arsenic and fluoride contamination. I was part of a multidisciplinary team working on health sector reforms in Bihar, India. My responsibilities covered six districts in south west Bihar and focused on key WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) challenges.

One of the first tasks I had was to visit various water treatment plants that had been installed by contractors to the local PHED a year earlier. The plant consisted of a solar pumping unit (, with an adsorbent unit acting to remove the arsenic from the water supply. The water was then piped to a public tap stand. The plant had been designed and constructed by a contractor with a year’s operation and maintenance included in the contract. The village was in a fairly remote area of Bihar and the operation and maintenance of the plant had not been considered beyond the first year’s contract. A local man from the community had been trained at the start of the project in basic maintenance but that training did not extend to more technical aspects of the maintenance of the plant. As a result when the filter needed replacement the plant ceased to function. With the filter soiled and the tap stands damaged the community returned to their traditional, contaminated, handpump sources.

In another example, the local government had installed multiple handpump attachment units to pre-existing handpumps. Again the PHED does not have the manpower or the expertise to maintain these. The complexity of the technology is beyond the scope of the mistris (maintenance man) skills (basic mechanical repairs). However the issue here was different, the pump with the treatment unit attached produced a significantly smaller discharge than the equivalent pump without the attached treatment unit. As a result the pump users disconnected the treatment unit and returned to using the untreated water. The day when I was there, a child was collecting water from one such pump (top picture). It was clear that for this child the work was significantly reduced by disconnecting the filter. The community were aware of the water quality problem, but as there was no immediate health effects they had reverted back to using the contaminated supply to minimise collection times.

These experiences made me acutely aware of some of the key challenges in the WASH sector, challenges such as the selection and use of appropriate technology. How do we ensure the sustainability of the technologies and avoid the problem I witnessed with the handpump attachment units? One way is to involve the user at all stages of the process, from selection to installation to operation and maintenance, accepting however that some level of outside support is likely to remain necessary. 

The contamination of groundwater by heavy metals in South Asia is a huge public health and environmental challenge. It is important to consider whether groundwater is the correct source in these communities with the knowledge we now have? If it is, there is a need for a thorough understanding of the processes leading to arsenic and fluoride contamination and the best way to develop groundwater in regions were these contaminants are a problem. This requires well trained hydrogeologists willing to cooperate with local communities and institutions to help them address this huge challenge.

For a good background reading on Arsenic in groundwater and strategies to reduce its impact see this link from UNICEF

Friday 25 May 2012

Friday Photo (34) - Small Earth Dam in Ethiopia

Small earth dam used to collect and store rainwater, and transport water via a pipe to support around 5000  people.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

GfGD Blog - Your Opinions Matter

Today we launch our GfGD Blog Review, in which we give our readers the opportunity to give us a little information about who you are, what you like about the blog, and what you'd like to see in the future.

Please do take the time to complete this form - your responses are genuinely valued, and will enable the GfGD Blog Team to improve and develop this site!


Monday 21 May 2012

Newswatch: May 2012

A range of stories were in the media over the weekend, including the sad news of a magnitude 6 earthquake in Italy. Here's a brief round-up:

At least seven people have been killed and numerous buildings destroyed after a M6 earthquake and aftershocks in northern Italy.

A shocking video shows the nature of waste disposal in the tourist hotspot of the Maldives. The video raises a number of questions about the environmental impact of tourism, and the importance of sustainable, effective waste disposal

The US have announced a major investment in food security in Africa, and the topic is being discussed at the G8 meeting. Although we've not analysed the details of this investment, it is an important step to see this issue receiving such high-profile attention.

On the subject of food security, serious malnutrition is being reported in the African nation of Niger. Reports suggest around six million people there are affected with numerous more across Western Africa.

Friday 18 May 2012

Friday Photo (33) - Shared Water Supply in Ethiopia

A water supply in Ethiopia shared by animals and humans, increasing the potential of diarrhoeal disease transmission. For many communities they have no choice but to drink this water.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Guest Blog: Ocean Nutrients - Geoscientists Have The Right Balance

Rosalie Tostevin is a PhD student and GfGD Ambassador at University College London (UCL). Her research examines the link between ocean chemistry and the emergence of the first animal life. Rosalie has written for the GfGD blog before, about the terrible situation in central Africa regarding conflict minerals and the negative impact on communities. Today she writes about the health of the oceans, the importance of nutrient balance, and why this is relevant for communities across the world:

The chemical elements carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous are all essential components of DNA, and their availability places major constraints on the oceans’ capacity to nurture life. Nutrient limitation and nutrient pollution are both caused by imbalances in local biogeochemical cycles (cycles in which chemical elements or molecules move through biotic, e.g. biosphere, and abiotic, e.g. atmosphere or lithosphere, parts of the earth). Management of both these very modern problems will require the expertise of the geoscience community.

Nutrient-rich deep water that upwells off the coast of Antarctica is not utilised efficiently by phytoplankton, because their growth is limited by the slow supply of an essential trace element, Iron. Not all of the upwelled carbon is converted to organic matter, as it is in the rest of the ocean, and so the carbon leaks out into the atmosphere. Supplementing the diet of the Southern Ocean with iron could block this leak and help us to offset anthropogenic CO2 emissions. But before we embark on any geo-engineering missions, we need to appreciate the complex nature of nutrient availability.

Algal Bloom of the coast of Cornwall
(Source: NASA)
In coastal regions we often have the opposite problem: nutrient pollution. Anthropogenic activity elevates nutrient levels in coastal zones, with fertiliser and animal waste being the biggest contributors. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorous can induce algal blooms, leading to oxygen-deprivation (hypoxia) and the collapse of the local ecosystem. Once damage occurs, the system may never fully recover.

Coastal zones are important because they host 25% of global biological productivity, and border more than 70% of the world’s mega-cities. Unlike global warming, this issue affects Europe equally, if not more severely, than developing nations. However, this problem is particularly difficult to manage in developing countries, where legislating against the growing use of fertiliser would stifle development, analogous to attempts to reduce carbon emissions at the expense of industrial growth. The Rio+20 conference identified nutrient pollution and hypoxia as one of the emergent problems of the 21st century. The UNEP Manila programme recognises that many people depend on the Oceans for their health, food security and economic livelihood. They pledge to:

Acknowledge the large increases in the levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus entering the world’s environment as a result of human activity, and note the severity of the environmental problems caused by nutrient excess, including eutrophication of coastal waters and oxygen depletion, and the associated damage to ecosystems, biodiversity and coastal water quality’.

Managing nutrient pollution is difficult, because often the source of the nutrients cannot be pinned down to an individual factory or farm. The nutrients enter the atmosphere, plants, groundwater and rivers, where they are cycled many times before they reach the estuary. Input to the ocean is associated with storm activity, and so is sporadic and unpredictable.

Oil Seed Rape
(Source: Petr Kratochvil)
Fertiliser controls brought in in the 1980’s led to a slight decline in nitrogen flux, but the problem has intensified again in recent years. The UK has switched to growing spring wheat, as it is more profitable, but this leaves bare soil in winter, which promotes faster nutrient flow. A surge in the farming of oil seed rape, which needs 3 times more fertiliser than conventional crops, has been driven by a demand for biofuels.

The solutions fall into two categories: damage prevention and damage management. The biggest single change we can make to prevent nutrient pollution is to reduce our meat consumption. Recent research has highlighted the additional benefits of reduced meat consumption; improved health, lower greenhouse emissions and the ability to feed an expanding population, making this a particularly relevant policy focus. In addition, we need to manage coastal systems that have already been damaged. The first step is to understand the complexity of, and coupling between, biogeochemical cycles, something geologists are routinely trained to do. We can also learn from the response of nutrient cycles to past tectonic and climatic events. For example, the effect of increasing bioturbation on nutrient feedbacks during the Cambrian Period (approx. 542-488.3 million years ago) can be assessed using nitrogen and carbon isotopes. The approach must be holistic; geoscientists are particularly adept at working with multiple component systems. This is a problem that calls upon 21st century geologists to put their knowledge and skills to use for the benefit of coastal communities and shallow marine wildlife.

Monday 14 May 2012

Alex Stubbings: On the Ground in Dhaka, September 18th 2011.

Alex Stubbings, GfGD Blog Climate Change Correspondent, writes...

During September to December 2011 I was fortunate enough to undertake an internship in Bangladesh, at the same time North India/Nepal was hit by a powerful earthquake. Naturally, what does Bangladesh have to do with earthquakes? Surprisingly quite a lot.

On September 18th 2011 there was a powerful Earthquake, M 6.9, in Nepal/ NE India, the so-called Sikkim Earthquake. Here’s a link to the Dhaka, English, broadsheet that should paint a richer picture of events on the ground in the region.

Drawing on my own anecdotal experience of the event I want to talk about earthquakes in this highly vulnerable area.

I've never been anywhere before that experiences earthquakes greater than M5.0, so this was new for me. Nevertheless, as I was walking around Dhaka on that day I had no idea that this earthquake had struck. The only tell-tale signs that one had were the masses of people pouring onto the streets of Gulshan Avenue, in the heart of one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Dhaka.

Shopping Centre, Dhaka (Source)
Gulshan Avenue is comprised of many tower blocks, some over 20 storeys high. When I saw the people on the streets I still had no idea that an earthquake had struck several hundred kilometres away. However, within ten minutes I received a text from a friend asking if I was OK. That’s when I found out what had happened.

Bangladesh Mega-Delta
 See here for licence details

As this video shows Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, due in part to the Himalayan uplift and being situated on unconsolidated sediment. The situation is made far worse for Bangladesh because it is one of the world’s largest mega-deltas, something which has only just started to register with me. The fact that liquefaction [when stable saturated sediment becomes unstable and begins to flow] can occur quite easily in unconsolidated sediments makes the vulnerability of this Less Developed Country (LDC) all the more pressing. Clearly policy makers need to make better contingencies for this. This will therefore necessitate improved disaster risk reduction practices across the spectrum of policy-society. These pictures, again from the Daily Star, document some of the destruction wrought by the earthquake in Nepal. What would concern me, as a geoscientist in the region or as a policy maker, is that these scenes could quite literally be repeated in Dhaka, and elsewhere in Bangladesh.

A good question to ask is why? Simply put, this is down to the old adage “earthquakes don’t kill people buildings do”. Unfortunately, as this article demonstrates this is quite literally the case in Bangladesh, but also in other countries too. Fortunately though I’ve not heard of any buildings collapsing yet, and hopefully they won’t. Nevertheless, until planning regulations are tightened up, uncontrolled urbanisation is curbed and appropriate building codes applied to make infrastructure more resilient, or earthquake proof, there is always the possibility that the worst case scenario could occur, which would be a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Therefore, as geologists, and as a community we really need to engage with NGOs, CBOs (community based organisations) and INGOs (international non-governmental organisations), and assist them in formulating sufficiently robust, flexible and fair policy documents that can be scrutinised or presented to cabinets, or appropriate governmental ministers. Mobilising our intellectual capital and working with a local NGO, is indeed a project we here at GfGD are all capable of and could undertake!

Friday 11 May 2012

Friday Photo (32) - Old Lava Flows

Beautifully defined old lava flows on the foothills of Mt. Teide
(c) Geology for Global Development 2012

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Write to Your MP: UK to Double Support for Water and Sanitation

Last week we posted on our Facebook wall the fantastic news that the UK Government has decided to double its support to water and sanitation projects in the world's poorest countries. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) will work to secure access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation for more than 60million people over the lifetime of this parliament.

As we have posted numerous times, access to clean water and good sanitation has a knock-on benefit to many other areas of life. It means children will no longer have to walk many miles to collect water, thus increasing the time they can spend at school. It means health problems, many avoidable diseases, can be reduced. This is turn can improve the life expectancy of mothers giving birth and young children especially. Improved health, through drinking clean water, can mean less days are lost to sickness and so people have the freedom to work and generate income. In fact, for every £1 spent on water and sanitation in the developing world, it is estimated by the United Nations that a staggering £8 is returned in reduced health costs, saved time and better productivity.

Alan Duncan, Minister of State at DFID, recently stated in a debate to mark World Water Day:
"Ensuring access to water and sanitation for the poorest is, to pick a metaphor, the bread and butter of development. When we get it right, so much else follows: children become more likely to reach their fifth birthday, and they are healthier and in a better position to benefit from education; women, who carry most of the world’s water, are empowered; and economic growth and prosperity are enhanced and facilitated. While we fail to deliver those most basic necessities, not only are there an estimated 2.4 million preventable deaths each year, but generations of people become trapped in poverty."
Any increase in the support the UK gives to water projects is fantastic news and deserves to be celebrated. We are asking those readers of the GfGD Blog who are UK Citizens to take this opportunity to write a brief letter to their constituency MP to express your support for this decision. It is important to let our MPs know when there is something we are happy with, as well as something we are not happy with. There is much debate about the UK aid budget at the moment, and it will be great for many MPs to hear that we think giving more support to water projects is the right thing! 

Some of you may be regular letter-writers to your MP, others may have never done it before. Here's our simple step-by-step guide:

(1) Work out who your MP is by putting your postcode into this website
(2) Write a letter addressed to your MP, stating why you are writing, why this is important to you and what you'd like your MP to do. 
(3) The letter can be very brief - the more concise the better. You can use some of the information in this blog post or other posts, or do further research if you'd like. Make sure you are polite.
(4) Post the letter to your MP (!)

At a cost of 50-60p for a stamp and about 10 minutes of your time - there's no real reason not to get involved in this GfGD activity! Once you've sent your letter - why not comment on this blog, stating who you are, what you do (e.g. PhD Student at King's College London) and which MP you wrote to. It will be great to see how many different MPs we've managed to contact to tell them that clean water and good sanitation save the lives of many of the world's poorest communities!

Monday 7 May 2012

Dan Sharpe: Recent News - Three Gorges Dam

Dan Sharpe, regular GfGD Columnist, writes...

Three Gorges Dam
A subject of many an A-level geography essay, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2006 and the 181m high dam is thought to have cost nearly £25 billion to build. It is the second largest producing dam with regards to electricity output (behind the Itaipu Dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay) but this has come at a serious cost, and not just financially. About 1.4 million people have already been removed from their homes as the surrounding valley was flooded, and the Chinese Ministry of Land Resources have just announced that a further 100,000 people are to be evacuated due to safety issues.

The dam caused an area of over 600 square kilometers to flood and finally filled up to this maximum in 2010. Since then the number of geological disasters has increased dramatically. Landslips and rockfalls have led to the identification of 5,386 hazardous sites with banks already collapsing in hundreds of places. The unstable nature of the banks is caused by the huge seasonal variation in water level and it is this variation that is causing thousands more to be moved from their homes.

Submerged Cities:
Photos from1987 (bottom) and 2006 (top)
The controversial dam was the dream of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong and has submerged 13 cities, 140 towns and over 1,300 villages - staggering figures that have frequently been frowned upon by many nations (and geography students of course). More recently, a report published by the environmental group Probe International suggested that the entire upper Yangtze (where 20 dams are located, including the Three Gorges) is at risk from a catastrophic collapse of these man-made structures. The idea focused around the seismic activity in the area and the theory that a failure of one dam could cause a cascade of water collapsing further dams, which in a heavily populated area is clearly a significant problem.

The Three Gorges Dam is perhaps the last example of China’s historical dictatorship, a construction that typifies the ‘greater good’ mentality with little care for the collateral damage to local people. Now, in a westernising government, this fiercely growing nation has admitted problems regarding this structure. They have conceded that they have not done enough to ensure a similar quality of life for those forced to move, and many families are beginning to move back to the banks of the reservoir increasing the fatality risk from natural disasters. Further to this, there is suggestion that the reservoir increases the risk of earthquakes in the area, and has completely changed the ecology of the river even driving the Yangtze River Dolphin to extinction.

The long term goal was to provide a sustainable source of energy, which has certainly been fulfilled, as well as controlling damaging floods that used to regularly hit the area. In 2010 for example, the South China Floods caused the reservoir to rise by 3m in less than 24 hours. Due to the control of the dam, the outflow of water was reduced from 70,000m3/s in to the reservoir to just 40,000m3/s out, effectively reducing the impacts of serious flooding on the middle and lower river.

The Three Gorges Dam is a difficult issue. On one hand it is fantastically resourceful and very good at controlling floods; however it has ruined hundreds of thousands of lives. People have been forced to move into lower standard housing in poor areas with no prospects of work, and the government has done little to support them. This project was an example of what we can achieve with hydro-electric power, but due to the political situation in China at the time, it cannot be considered fully sustainable as so many citizens were displaced. As China are beginning to accept the problems with the dam, hopefully quality of life will increase for those who once suffered and the safety of the area improved. Still, with increasing evidence for the possibility of a catastrophic failure due to seismic activity, it may not be the last negative we hear about the geography students’ favourite case study.

Friday 4 May 2012

Friday Photo (31) - EGU 2012

A brief presentation on the role of geoscience within international development and the work of GfGD was given within the Geoethics/Science Communication Conference (Photo courtesy of Dr Bruce D. Malamud)

Wednesday 2 May 2012

EGU Debate: The Role and Responsibilities of Geoscientists for Warning and Mitigation of Natural Disasters

Marco Dormino/UNDP
The European Geoscience Union’s General Assembly gathers over 11,000 people including students, academics, the media, those in industry and policy makers. Of these 11,000 there are a significant number of people working on various aspects of natural hazards, as seen in the broad range of talks and sessions in this division. Sessions focused on the physics and mechanics of a broad range of hazard events, forecasting and prediction, early warning tools, communication and geoethics and much more.

One session that took place was a ‘Great Debate’ on the role and responsibilities of geoscientists for warning and mitigation of natural disasters. The debate panel included representatives from insurance, academia and the EU Civil Protection Agency. This discussion was one that came up several times over my week, in various sessions, discussions and often over a glass or two of wine.

Many natural disasters can be prevented or the impacts significantly reduced, and geoscientists have a crucial role to play within this work. If geoscientists want to be most effective within this important field they must strengthen their communication skills, and think about how they can better ensure their knowledge and information is presented to the public, policy makers and politicians. But the question is not only how can it be presented, it is how can the information be presented well and effectively.

Communication to Local Stakeholders
It was frustrating, and at times very sad, to hear some of the comments in this debate. For example, a suggestion that geoscientists should make better use of open-source journals was put forward as a way to make sure our information gets through to the public. Whilst open-source is very helpful for many reasons, I don’t think that this is a solution at all to the great communication divide between scientists and the public. The language, format and style of scientific papers – be they open source or pay-to-access – is focused on communicating information to their peers. I have studied geology for over 10 years now and yet pick up many papers and struggle to understand what they are saying and how the research is relevant. Writing for open-source, or placing our technical papers on personal websites (which was also suggested) will give geoscientists access to more information. It will not, as is desperately needed, improve communication of this essential knowledge to other key stakeholders. We need to see a significant change in the mentality of scientists to incorporate, value and prize effective public engagement and outreach into their research projects. A paradigm shift from ‘come look at what we’re doing’ to ‘let us come to you and show you what we are doing’ is absolutely foundational to improved communication.

Barriers to Communication
(Adapted from Liverman, 2010 -
Geophysical Hazards:Minimizing Risk,
Maximizing Awareness [Ed. Tom Beer]) 
I believe we can increase the effectiveness of geoscientists’ contribution within disaster risk reduction (DRR) through a number of developments to geoscience courses. Whilst students are not by any means the only people working within DRR, we can help overcome some of the communication barriers (highlighted in the diagram to the left, adapted from Liverman, 2000) by changing the way graduates approach and enter into this work. Such developments include an overhaul of professional skills modules in undergraduate and postgraduate geoscience courses. These must include training in how to communicate to non-specialists or multi-disciplinary audiences, training in how to write a press release or general-interest article, and some basic teaching on issues such as community participation and sustainability.

Whilst I am not suggesting that these are the only steps that must be taken - they are important and will, I believe, enable those within the exciting field of geoscience to make a positive and greater contribution.