The 'Key Themes' posts are a series of short articles outlining the role that geologists have in various aspects of global development.

Physical infrastructure includes those things needed for society or enterprise to grow and flourish, and the economy to grow. It includestransport networks such as roads, airports and dockyards; energy networks such as power grids and pipelines; telecommunications networks; solid waste management andwater managementjoint report by the French Development Agency and World Bank has outlined the significant investment required in African infrastructure alone… a huge £93million per year, of which a third is for maintenance of existing infrastructure. This figure includes the cost of transport, power, water and communications networks. The physical geography of Africa, remoteness of communities and lack of competition means that there are significant logistical and financial challenges to developing infrastructure.

Infrastructure, however, is responsible for a significant proportion of Africa’s economic growth over recent years. From 1990-2005 it is believed that more than a half of the economic growth seen was as a result of investment in infrastructure, and the World Bank suggests that this percentage could grow further. The Millennium Development Goals suggest that economic growth of developing countries should be around 7% per year, figures were around 5% a year before the current global financial crisis. Continued investment in infrastructure could help countries move towards this 7% per year growth target.

Infrastructure is also hugely significant for human development. Power networks can lead to improvements in business, health and education. Safe and clean water supplies and sanitation save time, money spent on healthcare and prevent diseases. Transport networks improve businesses, increase markets and improve the flow of goods and food across the country. 

What role do geologists have to play in this sector?

Geologists have a significant role in various aspects of infrastructure development as outlined below:

Tanzania: Road
Transport Networks:  Engineering geologists are involved in investigating the ground conditions, identifying hazards and determining routes and locations for major transport networks such as roads, airports, dockyards and canals. Investigations of ground conditions help effective and sustainable design of structures and components of structures (for example foundations, slopes etc) ensuring networks are safe and long lasting. The identification of hazards such as slope stability, seismic risk, contamination of groundwater and subsidence are carefully considered and analysed, and appropriate measures are put into place to mitigate against failure. Design of routes is based on the results of geological, geotechnical and geomorphological mapping. Geologists can also play a crucial role in the design and construction of tunnels, and the identification of local raw materials to reduce the cost and environmental impact of the structure.

Energy Networks:  Geologists play an important role in the design of pipeline routes, ensuring hazards such as subsidence; seismic hazards and unstable slopes are identified. Foundation design and ground investigation for large power stations, environmental impact assessments for hydroelectric schemes and design of renewable resources such as geothermal power can also be addressed by those with a geoscience background.

Communications Networks:  Issues such as foundation design and geohazards assessment are crucial for many aspects of telecommunications networks – including radio-masts, and undersea fibre-optic cables, as well as large buildings and structures.

Solid Waste Management:  Design of landfill systems to prevent leaching of material into potable groundwater, and the build up of explosive gases. Identification of geologically stable sites for hazardous waste.

Tanzania: Water Pipe
Water & Wastewater Management:  As outlined in a previous ‘Key Theme’ discussing water resources, geologists have a significant role in the location, extraction and management of groundwater. In addition to the points raised in this Key Theme, there are additional roles for geologists with regards to the infrastructure required for provision of water and sanitation systems – in particular with regards to urban areas. The design of sewer systems requires extensive geological and engineering knowledge, as does the design of water pipelines (for those reasons set out for the design of energy pipeline routes)