Think of it as kinder, gentler, altruistic geology.
“There’s a refugee camp in Kenya. There are 300,000 people there and there’s a serious water problem and when you think about it, through much of the world, people live on about four gallons … and that takes about as much time (to use up) as it does to brush your teeth.”
That’s AAPG Emeritus Member Robert Merrill of Catheart Energy, Inc. talking about some of the projects of Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB), a humanitarian program that supports humanitarian applications of geoscience around the world.
Merrill, who represents the AAPG Foundation on GWB’s technical committee, said the organization’s mission is about solving problems in areas that need help – like those water problems, but also earthquake and tsunami warning and flood preparedness. In addition to those humanitarian efforts, the organization strengthens the global geoscience community through beneficial multidisciplinary partnerships worldwide and by encouraging student involvement.
And when it goes well – and it’s often a slow, frustrating experience – GWB leaves a legacy in place.
Which is also the point.
“GWB supports initiatives around the world that focus on, number one, solving problems, number two, educating students and getting them interested in geoscience, and number three, making it possible to engage their local population in the results,” said Merrill.
The organization, which is administered by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, began in 2008. Schlumberger was its founding supporter and the AAPG Foundation has been a GWB Associate supporter for the past two years.
Here’s how it works.
After requests are made by host countries (usually from scientists and geologists within afflicted areas) to universities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, those schools then petition GWB, which then decides which are most feasible and where GWB can do the most good. Once a project is approved, it can take up to two years to complete.
“We are really dependent on organizations submitting projects and most of these projects are from around the world,” Merrill said.
But that is often just the beginning.
“Once a project has been approved, there’s a negotiation involved to make sure the money is handled appropriately.”
It’s important to GWB that the afflicted areas get as much bang for the buck as possible – and these projects can cost as much as $500,000.
“We make sure the grants do more than just pay administrative fees. We’re not looking for projects where we’re just buying computers,” said Merrill.
At the moment, while projects from Honduras, Romania, India, Thailand, Jamaica and South Africa are still in progress, Merrill said GWB can report on the following.
A permanent monitoring and early warning system is being established to track the evolution of the Maca landslide, located in a high seismicity region (next to Arequipa). Landslides there threaten a village of 900 inhabitants, a very popular and frequented road (500,000 vehicles a year) and pre-Inca terraces. The goal here, Merrill said, will be to equip the region with up-to-date geophysical instruments to track the landslides, including GPS, seismometers, piezometers and a meteorological station, ultimately developing an alert system for landslide activity in case the mass starts moving again toward the village.
Here the efforts are to develop tsunami inundation maps for the south coast of Java to be used to implement disaster prevention strategies, such as evacuation drills. Historical records compiled of the area indicate this region of the country has been hammered by tsunamis for the past 430 years.
After a GWB grant was awarded to IsraAID, a project at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya identified three water well locations. Paul Bauman of Advisian WorleyParsons, in Calgary, oversaw the project and students from the University of Calgary and several volunteer geophysicists from the firm provided additional fieldwork. Additionally, 28 students from IsraAID’s water, sanitation and hygiene program, which provides training in water-resource management and technology, participated in the geophysical fieldwork. These wells produced at a rate that will supply approximately 140,000 people per day with the recommended amount of water. Additional targets will be drilled in an extension of the program.
Echoing the organization’s mission statement, Merrill said it is important that the projects are learning experiences for students. He hopes it will stoke an interest and show the possibilities of careers in the geosciences.
“The goal is not only to provide funding to projects that will benefit communities in need, where applying geoscience and information is critical to improving poor conditions, but also to encourage students to pursue the broad range of geoscience careers and to strengthen the global geoscience community through beneficial multidisciplinary partnerships and cooperation with other organizations,” he said.
Personally, for Merrill, he got involved because he liked the concept of giving, improving, repairing – concepts embodied in the forerunners to GWB, Doctors Without Borders and Engineers Without Borders.
The parallels, as one might imagine, mean there might be impediments to the work – often political – as was the case in those refugee camps. Merrill said he recalls only one project, in Afghanistan, that was deemed too politically volatile. Most of the time, though, before GWB begins its work, negotiations between scientists and national politicians have already taken place.
Asked whether this is a tough sell for these local geologists, Merrill said that it’s more a matter of convincing the government official that there are solutions out there that can make their countries better.
“They all, it seems, have the same questions: ‘What’s the problem, what’s being done and how’s it going to help us?’”
There is another dynamic at play, something Merrill said he hadn’t thought much about it, and that is the perception of those in the industry. He knows of the good work – he orchestrates some of it – being done by geoscientists, the noble work around the globe.
“Yes, now that you mention it, I do want people to know what the community is capable of doing.”