Five questions with Dr. Douglas Oldenburg for GWB

Improving Water Security in Mon State, Myanmar via Geophysical Capacity Building

How did this GWB project come about?

Our GWB project was completed in mid-2020. Serenity (Ren) Fan was the catalyst for this project. In 2018 Ren, who I later hired as a project manager, worked in Myanmar with the Mon Department of Rural Development (MDRD). This was made possible with the support of Canadian International Development Organization Cuso International (equivalent of Peace Corps). Over a six-month placement, Ren trained government engineers on how to use the DC-Resistivity method to delineate subsurface aquifers. Ren’s work included demonstrations of an inexpensive 1D DC-Resistivity instrument, which successfully delineated shallow conductive layers associated with local aquifers. We wanted to build upon Ren’s experience and success of our previous efforts in Mon State.

What are the unique attributes for this project site’s selection?

Mon state, in the South Asian country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), is the project site. Millions of people in Myanmar suffer from water shortages during dry season. In 2018’s dry season, an estimated 24,400 villagers in Mon state suffered directly from water scarcity, which is also an annual crisis there. Currently, a mere 69 percent of households have access to improved drinking water as their main source. People in Mon state are also marginalized as a result of several social issues, including but not limited to:

  • Acute poverty
  • High unemployment, particularly for women
  • Significant populations of marginalized Mon, Rakhine, and Karen ethnic minorities
  • A history of war and displacement as recent as the 1990s. These issues combined with others exacerbate poor water access. Currently, government drillers lack methods with which to determine the optimal locations to drill-productive wells. The only guideline they consider in drilling wells is that they be offset sufficient distances from surficial contamination sources. This results in low drilling success rates and wasted time, manpower, and money. Our project aimed to improve water security in Mon state by training local engineers, students, and researchers to use DC-Resistivity to more effectively locate sustainable water supplies.

What is the long term humanitarian and technical aim for this project?

In addition to Ren, our water project team had two post-doctorate students, one senior geophysicist, one python programmer, and a computer developer. Under this GWB grant, we planned to expand upon the progress by procuring a multichannel electrical resistivity system for improved delineation of deeper aquifers. This project also enabled us to train local graduate and undergraduate students, researchers, and engineers on how to operate the geophysical equipment and interpret collected data in order to guide and more effectively perform groundwater exploration down to ~100 m depths. Furthermore, previous hydrogeophysical studies in the Mon state, including the work by Ren, in addition to geophysical surveys funded by JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency), have suggested the existence of an electrically resistive, fractured crystalline bedrock underlying an electrically conductive clay aquitard. The work conducted by JICA and by Ren demonstrated that DC Resistivity could distinguish between these units, and thus facilitate hydrogeologic characterization. On the humanitarian aspect, by featuring a Trainer-of-Trainers (TOTs) capacity building model, and a global, multidisciplinary consortium of government, university, and industry partners, our project was well-equipped to sustainably alleviate water scarcity and improve livelihoods. During this project, we:

Purchased a modern multi-channel DC-Resistivity system that remains in Myanmar with the Mon Department of Rural Development; Facilitated an intensive 2-week in-country geophysical short course, with subsequent facilitation of hydrogeophysical surveying by 5 TOT’s in 20 water-stressed villages throughout Mon state; and Developed open-source educational resources for operating DC-Resistivity technology and interpreting the measured data. These efforts helped directly improve water security for an estimated 15,000 rural people. Our work built upon a previous hydrogeophysical project in Mon state, during which we demonstrated the applicability of 1D DC-Resistivity for delineating aquifer units in the region and developed relationships with local engineers and geoscientists. This GWB project brought together local and global stakeholders, including the MDRD, the geoscience department of Mawlamyine University (MLMU) in Mon state, industry professionals, and distinguished Canadian and American geophysical researchers from The University of British Columbia Geophysical Inversion Facility (UBC-GIF), Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

What are some of the biggest challenges of working in Mon State/Myanmar?

One of the biggest challenges that we encountered was getting facetime with the relevant people, who were decision-makers and stakeholders. There was an extreme lack of communication. We had already purchased airline tickets for our entire team to be in Mon state for training and field work in November 2019. However, there was no word from the local staff and team for a long time. I had to personally go first to the capital city and meet with the chief for water management to make a presentation. Then the information trickled down to Mon state. It was a bit of an adventure as our state-level project now became a national project. People in the field had buy-in, commitment, excitement, and got the communication going, which was clearly essential for this GWB project’s success. Myanmar has a very top-down approach when it comes to decision making. The National Department of Rural Development (DRD) collects the data in 1D and sends it to state level agency. This data is usually very superficial, vague and rudimentary about the location of aquifers. National government agency has the instrument to collect the much needed data; however, sadly they do not have an idea of what to do with it.

What has the progress been so far and where do you see this project in the future?

Our GWB project funding was for one year with a mission to build the local capacity by identifying Trainer-of-Trainers (ToTs) model. Five people were designated as ToTs initially. Upon the completion of training in March 2020, 46 people were identified as ToTs. We conducted a two-week long training for 35-40 people from National and State DRD and Universities. These ToTs became familiar with the geophysical equipment and data collection. We envision that these ToTs shall be able to scale the project impact to neighboring Kayin state, where tens of thousands of people also suffer from seasonal droughts, and government drillers do not incorporate geophysical methods. Open sourced data; teaching and training in basic geosciences principles; the use of field-based notebooks as an interface between data, equations, simulations, and trained personnel who can interact with it; have been the offerings under this project. Students can download the app and ask questions to interact with material for an active engagement. Case histories have been formulated in a specific way in Google Docs. People can go out and capture the information in a seven- question form concisely. Each village that this GWB project worked with has a case history. These case histories are available for use to anybody, who wants to conduct such study in any village in Myanmar. Anyone can go out in the field collect data for inversion, interpretation, and reproducible form.

The whole business of reproducible data is a new concept in the geosciences community. This GWB project has been instrumental in demonstrating and pushing this concept forward. The case histories mentioned above are invaluable. Now our team in North American can take a look and provide solutions. Even if the project ended last year, there is a fairly good chance of these case histories being continued to be collected in the local, state, and national levels in Myanmar by ToTs. Development of an open source, web-based DC-Resistivity user guide for training participants and users worldwide, and contributing to the global geoscience community shall be some of the key contributions of our GWB project in the future.