Geological expertise essential to the development of SVG
Our Readers' Opinions
October 21, 2005
Geological expertise essential to the development of SVG

by Dr. Richard Robertson – Geologist

In this season of political activity I fear that my letter may be lost amongst the noise that usually abounds at these times.

Nevertheless I write in the hope that maybe the various parties will consider something that impacts directly on all aspects of development of our island and which is usually given scant attention. This relates to the need for geological expertise to be brought to bear on the development process in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. By ‘geological expertise’ I am here referring to all such knowledge of the earth and its processes that one obtains through a process of formal or informal training in the earth sciences.{{more}}

On a recent trip to St. Vincent I spoke to a young graduate in geology who expressed frustration over the absence of any opportunities for employment in St. Vincent. The graduate recounted an experience with a highly placed civil servant who indicated that the existing policy is to ‘out-source’ for such expertise. This means that we pay premium prices for consultants to advise government about issues which can be addressed by locals trained in the field. Most people would recall the Gibson Corner incident where local advice was given regarding the potential for mass movement, several years prior to the onset of construction.

This advice was provided at no cost and was part of an ongoing effort by this writer to demonstrate the value of someone trained in the geological sciences. One of the most disheartening aspects of this incident is the fact that after the movement occurred, the governing authorities at the time employed a consulting firm to tell them essentially what had already been stated for free several years before. In addition, despite the extensive discussion that followed the incident no-one on St. Vincent (apart from a single media house) contacted the author of the original report for comment or any advice on the issue. I can only guess at the reason for this but I suspect that it goes back to our general tendency to value foreign expertise rather than our own.

Whatever the rationale on that occasion for the actions taken, it needs to be said that for a country that is currently investing such an admirable amount of resources in the education of its people, we still seem not to recognise that we have the human resource here to undertake tasks that are either not being done or which we are employing overseas consultants to undertake.

So why do we need geologists (?) and why is it not easier to simply continue to bring in consultants to provide the expertise needed? The space provided for this letter does not allow me to delve too deeply into this matter but I will attempt to make a few key points that I trust will help to provide an answer. In order to do so I will simply ask two questions: what is geoscience and what do geoscientists do?

What is Geoscience?

Geoscience includes all the sciences (geology, geophysics, geochemistry) that study the structure, evolution and dynamics of planet Earth and its natural mineral and energy resources. It is a discipline that investigates the processes that have shaped the Earth through its 4600 million year history and uses the rock record to unravel that history. It is concerned with the real world beyond the laboratory and has direct relevance to the needs of society.

What do geoscientists do?

Geoscientists can undertake a number of activities and I have briefly itemised some of these below:

Geological survey and mapping: Geoscientists study and map the distribution of rocks exposed at the Earth’s surface. They look at how they are folded, fractured and altered by geological processes and determine their ages and field relations. This enables the production of geological maps and databases which are the basic tools underpinning the utilisation of all natural resources.

Energy supplies: Geoscience provides the knowledge and understanding of how energy resources such as oil and gas, coal and uranium are formed and where they may be found – key information for the design of cost-effective exploration programmes. Geoscience is also involved in the search for sources of geothermal energy: several types of rock act as heat reservoirs and in many parts of the world this heat is used as an energy resource.

Rocks as natural resources: Rock itself is a raw material of immense importance. Ornamental stone for facing buildings, rock chippings for roads, limestone for cement, sand and gravel for aggregate, clays for brick-making and pottery, silica for furnace-linings, gypsum for plaster, rock salt for the dinner table and icy roads, phosphorites for fertiliser, metallic ores – the discovery, extraction and production of all these raw materials depend on the expertise of geoscientists.

Engineering Geology: Major construction projects such as dams and tunnels disturb the physical environment and engineering design parameters need to be based on geoscientific investigation of local ground conditions. Geoscientists also advise on the design and safety of landfill sites and other environmentally sensitive developments. Seepage from landfill sites may pose a serious problem for the local water supply. Old mine workings may present a threat to buildings or may cause pollution, especially during floods when solutions of heavy metals may be flushed into rivers. Underground storage sites for nuclear waste raise special environmental concerns because of the very long time period for which such waste must remain sealed and undisturbed. Geoscientists can offer expert advice on whether any selected site will be sufficiently safe.

Geology of water supplies: Water is the most important natural resource of all and much of the world’s water comes from underground water supplies. Geoscientists study the movement, behaviour and quality of groundwater, and potential sources of pollution, and design exploration programmes for new water supplies – especially in developing countries.

Having thus outlined what is geoscience and what geoscientists can do, it may be obvious how their work can impact on all aspects of life in a small developing country with limited resources such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The officials we elect and employ to manage our limited resources are required to choose carefully between alternative use of the limited land space we occupy. Understanding the nature of that land and its limitations is critical to making sensible choices. I have often read arguments in the press for or against a particular development that allude to the impact of the underlying geology on such development.

Unfortunately, although well meaning such arguments are often not well grounded in the geosciences and are therefore unable to withstand any kind of serious scientific scrutiny. I am here suggesting that it is absolutely vital for the governing authorities in our small island nation to seriously consider the employment of one or two persons with geoscience training in a few of the critical government agencies and/or ministries. It is clear given our response to some recurrent natural hazards that we can do with the presence of such resident expertise in Ministries that deal with such matters as public works and infrastructure, planning and disaster management. I recommend that the government seriously consider the employment of an individual in the role of a ‘government geologist’.

This individual may be placed under a particular ministry but will respond to requests from any government ministry/agency for geoscience advice. The individual would then be able to advise government on any kinds of projects that require geological expertise. There are a number of Vincentians who are now trained in this field and who I am certain will be eager to take up this challenge. This will ensure that local capacity will be groomed and developed in this area. Although my proposal may result an increase in the recurrent costs to government, it will save on the amounts spent on consultants and hopefully on the need for remedial works in such places as Gibson Corner and Shot Rock in Lowmans that result from a failure to consult or adhere to such advice.

I address this letter to the general public amongst whom I hope are a number of key officials who will give serious consideration to the suggestion I have made. I am willing and ready to provide further

details and advice on the matters discussed if this is felt necessary.