By Sally-Ann Jones
On his latest field trip in an arid East African valley, Research Associate Professor Jeffrey Shragge met a woman who wakes at 2am every second morning to walk 20km with her donkey to fetch fresh water for her family. She gets home at 10am.
He also met a brother and sister, aged six and seven, who trudge for 90 minutes every day each bringing 10 litres water to their frail grandparents.
Professor Shragge, a geophysicist at the Centre for Petroleum Geoscience and CO2 Sequestration, has recently returned from the Mathima Valley in Kenya’s southern Kitui province where about 30,000 people inhabit small towns and tiny villages.
“Most live without electricity and have scant access to fresh water,” he said.
“Only a lucky few are able to raise cattle, which can survive on the more available brackish water. Relocation for these people isn’t possible because they’ve lived in this valley for thousands of years and, if they moved, there’d probably be conflict over grazing and water rights. Water scarcity is the most significant development challenge in this region.”
However, fresh water is known to be present in parts of the valley in geologic faults running some 50m below the surface. Thirty years ago a local geologist working in a neighbouring valley identified such a fault system and helped to site a borehole that to this day still produces potable water for local communities.
“There are many non-government organisations (NGOs) drilling for fresh water in the area that excel at assessing community water needs and at fundraising to cover drilling costs,” Professor Shragge said. “But it’s uncommon for NGOs to incorporate the geologic or geophysical observations that could significantly improve the likelihood of a successful outcome.
“They might drill an expensive 50m borehole only to find unusable salty water. Geophysical surveying, though, could help NGOs remotely sense existing faults and relocate boreholes to sites – sometimes offset by only 100m – that would be more likely to produce fresh water.
“The goal of this project is to help equip Kenyan geoscience professionals and students to be able to perform these types of analyses, and to connect them with NGOs to improve groundwater drilling outcomes.”
The two-week pilot project was funded by a grant from the Society for Exploration Geophysics (SEG) Foundation. Professor Shragge ended up in Kenya after listening to a Masters student from Jomo Kenyatta University for Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) speak eloquently at the annual SEG meeting about the limited career opportunities in Kenya for people with applied physics degrees.
As a result of this project grant Professor Shragge, who is interested in humanitarian geophysics, was given the chance to recruit JKUAT physics students to not only teach them about geophysics for a fortnight but also to take them into the field to look for groundwater.
“We received the grant to set up a pilot geophysics field camp with a groundwater focus for post- and senior undergraduate students,” he said. “There were 13 students aged from 20 to 26, about half of whom were women.
“Establishing a sustainable geophysical field camp based out of JKUAT could really be a win, win, win project.
“Local people would win with more successful collaborative water projects between universities and NGOs.
“Students would win because they would be giving back to their own community while obtaining job-skills that make them attractive for employment with international resource companies working throughout East Africa.
“And resource companies themselves would win because they could recruit from a larger pool of local geoscientists instead of having to import expats at a far greater cost.”
Professor Shragge said four of the 13 students he taught during the fortnight, who had been undecided about their next move, told him they now planned to do a Masters in geophysics as a result of participating in the project.
Professor Shragge, who has been at UWA for three years, undertook a PhD at Stanford University in the US in exploration geophysics. He worked on this project with colleagues from the University of Bucharest in Romania and from the oilfield service company Weatherford.
He hopes UWA researchers focusing on technical and policy aspects of groundwater, resource exploration or African development might be interested in contributing to an upscaled version of the Kenyan project.
Published in UWA News, 29 October 2012