In 2004, shortly after my term began as SEG president, a massive undersea earthquake off the Sumatran coast triggered the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed a quarter-million lives. I received a flurry of emails from SEG members worldwide, asking what we could do to help, not simply as concerned citizens, but as geoscientists.
In my next president’s letter, I issued a grand call to action for members to donate to the SEG Foundation, to fund humanitarian-targeted geoscience projects. At that time, however, only a smattering of people donated money. The whole endeavor stalled out, but it never quite went away.
The spark reignited, when I ran across an organization called Engineers Without Borders, which delivers sustainable engineering programs proposed by local communities worldwide. I realized that we didn’t have to dream up our own projects or manage them. We just had to raise sufficient seed money, and solicit proposals.
I contacted Schlumberger’s CEO, whom I knew personally. Many geoscientists, I said, resonate with the idea of using earth science theory and technology to do good things for the world. And let’s be honest, the oil industry doesn’t have a great reputation in academic circles or the public. This could help elevate our profile, recruit highly motivated graduates, even inspire our own employees. He committed $1 million on the spot, at $200,000 per year.
Using this as seed money, the SEG Foundation formed Geoscientists Without Borders® (GWB) in 2008, hired a full-time administrator, and began soliciting proposals. To receive funding, a project must meet three criteria. It must involve earth science, have humanitarian benefits, and engage university students. Each project can receive up to $50,000/year for one or two years.
Humanitarian projects with science. In its first five years, GWB funded initiatives in Australia, Benin, Brazil, Greece, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Romania, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand. Projects included archeological excavations, earthquake preparedness, landslide prediction, pollution mitigation, tsunami preparedness, volcano preparedness, and water management. Last fall, SEG produced a terrific short film, entitled “Geoscientists Without Borders,” now posted on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md1185PL6dM), describing projects in Greece, Brazil, Jamaica and South Africa.
Many of GWB’s endeavors are profoundly impacting thousands of men, women and children in their respective regions. Consider, for example, our pollution mapping project in Romania.
After 40 years of aggressive copper, lead and zinc mining, Zlatna is one of Europe’s most polluted areas, and has attracted international scientific study to determine pollutant levels and locations. The University of Bucharest held field camps in a valley that had been mined since Roman times. Students observed local children swimming, and farmers watering their livestock, in a tailings pond that contained high concentrations of toxic metals. So a team of graduate students submitted a proposal to GWB to fund near-surface geophysical, geomagnetic and geochemical surveys. Their goal was to map contamination levels in the soil and aquifers along the Ampoi Valley, to identify the least-polluted water sources, and the safest places for planting crops.
A local mayor, who was also a geochemist, propelled the project beyond its original scope. With field data and certified geochemical lab results in hand, he petitioned the Romanian government and European Union for funds—and won approval for a pipeline to bring potable water to residents and communities throughout the valley. That’s an impressive return on a relatively small investment.
Recently, GWB selected three new humanitarian projects to fund in Guatemala, Cameroon, and a remote island off the Australian coast. The Guatemalan project involves building local capacities for monitoring eruptive and landslide activity at the Pacaya volcano. The ultimate goal is to save lives by means of early warnings in case of a catastrophic eruption, and to reduce false evacuation recommendations.
In northern Cameroon, students will conduct electromagnetic surveys to characterize a basement rock aquifer in the Vina River catchment, to develop a freshwater well field. The objective is to provide access to, and localization of, fresh groundwater reserves for domestic or irrigation purposes. Remote Milingimbi Island, Australia, has an aboriginal community of about 1,600 persons, and groundwater is their only water source. Students and professors will use near-surface geophysical measurements to support water supply investigations and engage local community members in training and use of near-surface instruments to help ensure a sustainable water supply.
Geoscientists are doing amazing, wonderful things around the world today through GWB, supported solely by individual donors, oilfield service providers, a few software developers, and a small number of E&P companies. Can you imagine what we will achieve, if we expand the base of support?
The vision, from the beginning, was to build a track record of successful projects to take our case to the oil industry. GWB now offers a compelling business case, worthy of broader, deeper industry support. I am confident that GWB can expand to represent the entire oil industry and will continue to inspire both students and the public, as they understand that we are using our science, technology and collective brainpower to make the world a better place for generations to come.