Monday, 11 September 2017

Rain, hazards and thin sections: A geological adventure in Sierra Leone...by Lorraine Field

I have just had the opportunity to spend a week and a half in a very wet, rainy Sierra Leone, working with Kathryn Goodenough as part of a two-year partnership project, funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), that is focusing on building a lasting legacy around capacity in the extractives sector. Sierra Leone has been left reeling in recent decades with a brutal ten-year long civil war that finally ended in 2002, the recent Ebola Crisis, and now a catastrophic landslide in the capital, Freetown. My role in country was to run an introductory petrology course to some of the geologists in the National Mining Agency (NMA). Recently refurbished, the Agency has purchased two microscopes to enable them to study rocks in thin section. This is something we at BGS take for granted, but for the NMA, this will be a tremendous step forward. My first challenge was getting four boxes of thin sections that will form the core of a teaching collection at the NMA into country. According to UK customs, thin sections are an offensive weapon, and I very nearly had them confiscated! The flight was spent in nervous anticipation of arriving in Sierra Leone with four boxes of fragmented glass, but fortunately, the boxes survived the baggage handling intact!

A view of the microscope lab

We arrived in country following weeks of exceptionally heavy rain – one estimate we heard was that the rain in August had been 3 times greater than the norm – and believe me, when it rains here, it RAINS! It’s the first time I’ve had to give lectures and battle with the noise of the rain in order to be heard!

Heavy rain at about 10am at the NMA
Unfortunately, this proved to be a contributing factor in a catastrophic landslide in early August causing ~1000 deaths, and extensive destruction to property. BGS colleagues have been working with Arup and local consultancy Integems on a World Bank-funded hazard mapping project for Sierra Leone, and so Kathryn was invited to represent BGS at a World Bank meeting on arrival in country. This meeting brought together key players, to look at issues such as damage to infrastructure (e.g. roads and bridges), stabilising the landslide, hydrology, and obviously, the factors contributing to the cause of the landslide in the first instance. It was a fantastic experience for me to observe the processes and work involved with major organisations such as the World Bank and UN following such a disaster.

Over the weekend, we visited the landslide site with personnel from the international organisations, but also local staff from the NMA (which includes the Geological Survey of Sierra Leone) and members of the Sierra Leone Institute of Geoscientists (SLIG). The BGS project in Sierra Leone takes every opportunity to provide field training and experience to the younger geologists within the local organisations, by taking them into the field with more experienced geologists.  This was a very humbling experience – the news bulletins really did not portray the enormous size of the landslide, nor the reality of the damage caused. We were able to take a detailed look at the geology from the side of the landslide itself and provide our observations to the World Bank and associated organisations. I was grateful to have the opportunity to really see how our branch of science can play a fundamental role in a disaster situation, helping to understand the causes, and then working towards understanding future hazards and risks. We also collected some eyewitness accounts which provided invaluable insights into the timing of key events, and which really brought the reality of the disaster home to us. Freetown is a relatively small capital city of just over 2 million people, so in such a small community everyone knew someone who had lost their life in this disaster.

A view of the landslip from near the source with some of our colleagues from the NMA and SLIG
The petrology course at the NMA started on Monday, with an intense week of lectures and microscope practical sessions. A colleague from the University also joined us in order to refresh and re-stimulate his knowledge. The delegates were eager to learn and proved to be A* students. We worked through an incredible amount of material, from basic microscope operation to covering identification of minerals and textures in sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks in thin section. It was an absolute delight to be able to teach delegates who were so enthusiastic. I hope by the end of the week that I had been able to achieve the aim of providing a foundation that the NMA staff can build on and develop through experience, and then pass on this knowledge by training more staff themselves. I hope soon they will be able to characterise the thin sections that are currently sent out of country for characterisation by the mining companies, thereby growing a commercial service in country at the NMA. As well as working hard, we had an enormous amount of fun during the week: the people of Sierra Leone have a wonderful, fun loving disposition, and one of my most endearing memories of this country will be that of mischievous laughter! If anyone is interested in becoming involved in the BGS work in Sierra Leone, please contact Kathryn Goodenough.

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