The Water Distribution Efforts of Geoscientists Without Borders

Cover image courtesy of Paul Bauman.

Written by Faith Thompson, The University of Oklahoma


Water scarcity and insufficient supply of drinking water is a large problem in some areas of Africa, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 300 million people have no or inconsistent access to clean drinking water. This problem is partly caused by the intense and complicated geology on the continent which makes it very difficult to find aquifers. Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB) is an international humanitarian group that has over 10 finished and ongoing water management resource projects throughout the continent. This essay will investigate the practices of GWB on their humanitarian trips to Africa. GWB volunteers are unpaid, and volunteers fund their own aid trips to the counties that they visit. In this essay, I will be focusing on their water resource management projects in the Refugee and Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps.  GWB takes a small team, of under 10 people. The organization also hires local people from the communities to work for them, and most importantly, learn about water management. Even though GWB successfully and efficiently completes its goal of supplying water to more people in Sub-Sarahan Africa, some of the volunteers may hold attitudes that negatively affect the work of GWB.  This essay will also explore their tactics for donations, and the possible exploitation of refugees for more donations.  


Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB) is a nonprofit organization that was started by The Society of Exploration Geophysics (SEG) after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami [1].  Members of SEG who lived in the areas affected by the earthquake asked for funding to assist geoscience efforts as a humanitarian response to global needs [1]. Two of the most notable members who called on the formation of an aid group were Paul Bauman and Craig Beasley. Paul Bauman soon after led multiple GWB projects in Africa [2]. Craig Beasley soon became the founder and head of GWB [1]

The mission of GWB is to “transform lives around the world by providing humanitarian application of geoscience solutions to global problems by connecting universities and industries with communities in need [1]. Since GWB was founded in 2008, 45 projects in 31 countries have been funded [3]. There have been three clear goals that have been defined by GWB [1].  The first is to fund geoscience programs that fulfill a human need. The second objective is to help inspire and teach future geoscientists. The final goal is to create multiple global interdisciplinary partnerships that would benefit future geoscience and other humanitarian efforts [1].  

Water Management of GWB 

Currently, GWB has eight distinct project types: Archaeology, Earthquake Preparedness, Volcano Preparedness, Landslide Preparedness, Pollution Mitigation, Tsunami Preparedness, Water Management, and Habitat Management [3].  GWB defines Water Management as the “use of electrical and seismic geophysical techniques to find groundwater aquifers, and locations for drilling water wells” [3]. All but one of GWB projects in Africa are Water Management Projects. Most projects begin with a local SEG member requesting help with a problem in their area. The water distribution projects GWB has done in Africa have all been a response to a local chapter raising the issue [4]. After GWB provides the means and funding, a group of 10-15 volunteers will fly to the country where they are needed. There, they teach local geoscience students as they drill and repair water wells [5]. Paul Bauman has been a lead volunteer for many of GWB’s Sub-Saharan projects and has written extensively about his time in Uganda and Kenya.  

In his Ted Talk seminar, Bauman outlines the reason that it is so important to teach local geoscience students when they go on trips is that water supply aid organizations often do not know where to drill wells [5].  Since most aid organizations that drill wells in sub-Saharan Africa do not bring geoscientists to do seismic research (which may be due to lack of funding in some cases), they have little way of knowing whether or not a well will find water. Most wells drilled in sub-Saharan Africa by these organizations have only a ¼ chance of becoming a sufficient water well for a community.  GWB drills wells with a 90% Success rate [5].  Furthermore, GWB publishes all the data that it collects for public use. According to Paul, this is so local communities other aid organizations could use the GWB data to help drill water wells with more accuracy [5]. GWB is also an incredibly efficient organization. Volunteers with GWB must pay their own fare when going on a project. This is so that all of the money that GWB raises can be used to drill and teach the local students [1].  This means that not only is GWB drilling more accurately than other aid organizations, but they are also able to spend more money on drilling than other organizations can. GWB does an excellent job of providing water management solutions efficiently.  


In Uganda, Paul Bauman led a group to do water distribution work in the Gulu District [3]. The Gulu district has an estimated population of around 400,000 people and is around 3,400 km2 of land area. The Gulu district is part of the Northern Region of Uganda and is one of the seven districts in the sub-region of the Acholiland [3].  This area was picked due to being an area of mass displacement following “rebel conflict” in the surrounding region [3]. The conflict then escalated into a civil war, worsening the effects on the people who live there. Approximately 90% of the population of the Gulu District was moved to Internally Displaced Person camps. As these people and communities have returned to their homes in the past decade, water resources have become increasingly scarce. The GWB team wanted to provide water resources for the area and educate students on how they can do the same [3]. The project only contained 10 field days, and GWB took only a small team. 85% of the funding for this project came directly from GWB, while 15% of it came from other organizations [4]. GWB trained 33 Ugandan students about Seismic techniques and geophysical exploration. Almost all of the students spoke the local language of Acholi. All of the students had completed a previous Water Management Technology program provided by IsraAID. IsraAID is one of the NGOs that partners with GWB. 30% of the students in GWB’s program had been child soldiers, 30% of the students lived mostly in Internally Displaced Person camps during the civil war, 30% lied elsewhere during the civil war. 10% of the students already had engineering degrees from Gulu University and were taking this course out of professional interest [4]. Each student was given a stipend by GWB for participating in the program.  

The students are paid to participate in the program so that they are not limited by any financial situations that they may be in. This ensures that any interested geoscience student would be able to participate in GWB’s programs regardless of financial need [5]. Unlike other water supply aid organizations, GWB teaches members of the local communities to drill water and also pays them for learning. After GWB leaves the area, they give the students additional funding in order for them to drill more wells on their own [1]. This makes GWB even better at efficiently helping the water supply issue. By paying and employing local geoscientists to learn and drill wells, they give water to people in need while also propping up local economies and hiring local employees [5]. Because GWB focuses so much on teaching local geoscience students, fieldwork with GWB is done in a unique way compared to other aid organizations. 

Field days in Uganda consisted of going to two sites to carry out geophysical surveys and additional fieldwork [4].  The “Well Repair Site” was the first and the “Exploration Site” was the second. During the trip, 11 water hand pumps were repaired across 9 different villages. This gave students time and experience to learn how different types of wells work and to explore areas of varied geology [2]. Students were taught every aspect of water-well drilling, from exploration to testing for contaminants. After GWB departed from Uganda, the students manually drilled 7 different water wells in 7 different villages [4]. These wells were also funded by GWB, and students were paid for building them. The installation and repair of 18 water hand pumps have provided safe water access to around 5,000 people. Around half of the students that GWB employed are now working in the water supply field [4]. The students documented the water well construction with great detail for future research and teaching. All of the communities made large contributions in cash, labor, and otherwise for the Acholi students. GWB predicts that 3 more wells would be constructed in that district within the year [4].   


Paul Bauman, pictured with Lillian and Anna, two of the students in the GWB class. They are collecting data in Kakuma, Kenya.

Paul Bauman, pictured with Lillian and Anna, two of the students in the GWB class. They are collecting data in Kakuma, Kenya. 

GWB was also asked to travel to the Kakuma Internally Displaced Persons camp in Kenya. The Internally Displaced Persons camp was the largest in the world. The Kakuma Internally Displaced Persons camp has a population of over 200,000 registered displaced people and refugees from 16 countries. While GWB was there they successfully drilled 3 water wells [1]. This water will provide water for around 57,000 people [2].  The head of this project is once again Paul Bauman. Paul Bauman writes most of the reports for the Water Distribution work of GWB. The goal of the Kakuma camp project was to provide safe drinking water to the camp and surrounding areas [6]. All of the people within this camp rely on just 12 wells for drinking water, making the normal daily use at just over 19 liters a person [6].  Another issue with the Kakuma water supply is an overabundance of fluorine found in the aquifers. The water had to be occasionally treated for high chlorine content as well. These things made it especially difficult to bring water to the camp. Geoscientist students were also taught on this trip, although the report that Paul Bauman made does not go into as much detail on the class diagnostics [6].  We can see here that once again, GWB efficiently and quickly was able to bring clean drinking water to 57,000 people. Bauman mentioned the significance of the high Fluorine content in the water in his blog. Some other water supply aid organizations do not test for water contaminants in their wells regularly, this can lead to people getting sick. GWB students are able to learn these practices and go on to drill more wells in their communities. This makes GWB extremely cost-efficient and also helps them promote geoscientists in the area.  

Community Based Water Supplies 

GWB prides itself in being able to leave a community knowing that the work that they have done would not be stopped and instead be continued for years. Community-based management of water supplies is an idea that is core to GWB belief. A community-based management of a water supply is when an organization raises money and builds a well in a village, and then leaves the village responsible for maintaining the well.  How effective is community-based management of groundwater? In sub–Saharan Africa, the predominant tactic for NGOs is community-based water management. Communities were encouraged to advocate and demand a water supply in their village. Then decide how it should be implemented and help pay for it. After the water supply is built the community must voluntarily manage the water source and pay for its upkeep. Currently, around 1/3 of all sub-Saharan Africa water pumps that once produced water are nonfunctional due to disrepair.  This presents another issue, if other NGOs are only drilling wells with a success rate of 1/4th and then only 1/3rd of them are surviving, only 1 out of 12 wells built by most NGOs are able to actually achieve full use.  

When organizations create a water supply but do not teach anyone how to maintain or fix it and then leave the community without funding, they are hoping for failure. How will the community fix the supply if it became non-operational? Other NGOs may teach some people how to do basic repairs on the water supply, but not give them additional funding to maintain the efforts.  These NGOs are expecting too much from the communities.  GWB stands out in how it does community-based water management.  Not only does GWB teach locals, but they also pay them to take geoscience classes. GWB also fixes wells and puts emphasis on that growing issue more than other NGOs have [1]. This helps GWB be more efficient in how they provide aid. Why have 60+ geoscientists fly over and build 3 wells when you can do the same with a team of 7 and further help the community?  

When GWB goes to a country to volunteer, they are also setting aside money for community members to continue their efforts after they are gone [1].  GWB volunteers must pay their own way to the country that they wish to volunteer in. Volunteers regularly spend as much if not more on their trip with GWB than they would on most vacations. This is so GWB can use 100% of their funding on resources for the places they are helping [1]. When GWB goes to a country, they set aside an amount of money to give to its geoscience students when the volunteers leave. The geoscience students then use the materials, equipment, knowledge, and resources they were given to continue and expand the water supply in the area [1]. GWB also spends a lot of time fixing wells and teaching the students to fix wells so that they will be able to help salvage most of the nonfunctioning water wells [4]. 

GWB also does more for its students and the local communities than other NGOs do. One of the reasons why GWB keeps its volunteering groups so small is because they pay locals in the camps and communities that they go to for all of their labor [1]. They hire guides, translators, drivers, and everyone else locally, that way, they can put as much money into the local economies and people’s hands as possible. GWB also pays its students a stipend for taking courses and continuing the water distribution work [4].  This helps students in less fortunate financial situations a chance to participate in the program and also helps those students save and plan for a life after GWB [1].  The time and energy that GWB spends making sure they benefit communities as much as possible is what sets them apart from other community-based water management system organizations. 

Another important distinction to make between the two groups is the way that GWB networks with other organizations and the way that GWB invests in the local communities of where they are. GWB is well known for working with other groups in order to complete their humanitarian projects. GWB worked with IsraAID on their project in Uganda, and they work with multiple other non-governmental organization’s across the globe in order to create a network of support for their students [4].  When GWB worked with IsraAID, IsraAID provided a course to all of the geophysics students about water management that was introductory to the one that GWB did on their short trip. This benefited both groups. When GWB collaborates with other non-governmental organization’s it splits the cost of the courses and resources for the students. This also helps GWB collect donations, win support, and grow larger. This helps GWB give more money to the students after they leave or in the form of a stipend.  

All of the considerations that GWB has made in their water management projects have been with the goal of efficiency in mind.  This efficiency is one thing that GWB excels at. GWB drills wells with 90% accuracy, over 3 times that of similar NGOs [5]. GWB also aims to educate and inspire geoscientists around the world, leading to community-managed water supplies that have been proved to be sustainable and effective [1]. Additionally, GWB is efficient in how it uses money, with all of the funding being used to directly support the communities which they are helping. GWB appears to be a model NGO, however, the volunteers that work with GWB may be hurting its cause.  

Helped or Helper?  

By looking at how the GWB presents its work in the geosciences community, we can see a different side of the operation. It is here that GWB occasionally teeters the line of overexposing the people they help for donations. Even though the community-managed resources and the classes are managed in a way that preserves the dignity and individuality of the people that they go to serve, GWB promotes these trips as if they are the saviors of villages, and further perpetuate untrue stereotypes about the people there. After GWB got back from its trip to the Dayspring Village in South Africa, the organization started to make reports on it and present them in the geoscience community to garner support and receive donations for the program.  

GWB did some seismic exploration and groundwater acquisition work at the Dayspring Children’s village in Magaliestbug, South Africa. This village is home to around 100 students who are considered to be “at-risk”. Paul Bauman, one of the most influential water distribution members of GWB, was absent on this trip. This may be the reason that there is not a GWB report on the South Africa project on their website.   

In the Society of Exploration Geophysicists seminar, one speaker, Jane Whaley, talks about her experiences in the Dayspring village in South Africa. The pictures that she includes in the seminar often show people in the poorest parts of poverty in the area of South Africa that they were in.  I thought this was interesting because GWB spent most of their time in the Dayspring Village, and around half of Whaley’s pictures were from outside of the village. Whaley talks often about the people that she saw when she went to Dayspring, and how the South Africans acted or their dispositions. It almost seemed like instead of putting efforts towards assisting GWB, tangible differences that could be made, or the geoscience students on display, she put the people she saw — those that she thought were different — on display. Whaley also talked down about some of the geoscience students that were from South Africa that they were working with, pointing out that she kept having to remind them of things and she didn’t think they were careful with equipment. Even though Whaley talked about the trip in an upbeat and loving tone, the way she talks about the South African students compared to the Canadian students that went with her is troubling. I think her attitude reflects an ugly backside to international aid groups. Too often in these groups, internal prejudice against those that are being helped along with intense do-gooder showmanship combine and hurt the people being helped. It is imperative that GWB does not fall into that trap. 

On the GWB website, the project that takes place at the Dayspring village in South Africa does not have an attached report. The Seminar online by Jane Whaley is one of the only places where you can find details of GWB’s activities on the trip online [3]. Instead, the only information directly under the “South Africa” portion of the website is a quick paragraph outlining why the group went to dayspring and a picture of a student completing field activities [3]. On the Dayspring Village Website, the homepage includes multiple pictures of the facility. The pictures are mostly of students in school, but also include group pictures, and photos of children making art. Once you click on the “About” tab, there are few pictures, but lots of information about the village, its vision, and the history of the organization. These pictures provided by Dayspring are more representative of the work that GWB was doing than many of the pictures in the Whaley presentation encouraging people to donate to GWB.  The way that Whaley talks about the trip and the people on the trip is concerning because she was a volunteer on the dayspring trip. If her attitude was to affect her geophysical work the results could be especially damaging.  

However, most of the other GWB volunteers do a much better job of respecting local people of cultures. Paul Bauman, one of the most influential sub-Saharan water distribution team leads, runs a personal blog that he updates frequently about his work with GWB [2]. He posts almost daily when he is on mission trips and uploads several pictures on the website about his travels. Paul talks about his days spent with GWB fondly and is always incredibly appreciative of the people that they work with.  He constantly tells funny stories or anecdotes that often include the local drivers/translators/laborers that GWB hires when they are on a trip [2]. We can see that other volunteers share his values in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists podcast talking about the story of GWB. In this podcast, former volunteers talk about their experiences on the trip [1].  A volunteer named Mike Forrest mentions that the group ended up helping people and he found that rewarding. He thereafter says that the most rewarding part was getting to work with and inspire the next generation of geoscientists. He doesn’t talk much about the physically straining seismic fieldwork, or the grueling 12 hour days. Mainly Mike mentions teaching the students and getting to perform geophysical work. He is quick to brag on them, commenting that since completing the program, the new geoscientists have successfully drilled five water wells [1].  When Mike mentions the students, he does not talk about them any differently than he talks about his geoscience students where he teaches in St. Louis.  The other volunteers on the podcast talk about their time fondly but mostly talk about their coursework and students as well [1].  

It’s important here to consider who is the helped and who is the helper. For the most part, the founders, administration, and leaders of GWB do not brag about being the ones to be helpers. While I believe that it is possible for some of the GWB volunteers may have unfair prejudices that may affect their work, I do not believe that is the case with the majority of their volunteers in the program. In almost every podcast, ted talk, or YouTube video where a GWB volunteer is talking about their work in a country they are preserving the dignity of the people in that country. I think one way that GWB has been able to minimize this is through keeping their groups that go on the trips so small. Since they keep the groups so small, they are limiting the chances of people going on the trip who are not necessary to be there. This also raises the qualifications of those that go on the trips. Most of the volunteers that go on trips with GWB are geoscience experts [1]. The natural selective design of these trips limits the amount of possible bad volunteers. GWB should implement some sort of training or background check process for the volunteers that wish to go with them on trips. I believe that if GWB created such a program, they would help limit the number of volunteers on the trip that could possibly be harmful.  


GWB is an organization with a short history of helping, but with a big heart. Ever since being founded by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, GWB has been dedicated to not only helping others around the world, but to teaching future geoscientists and funding their work. Since GWB is founded by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, it is extremely selective with who can get involved with it. The choosiness here helps protect GWB from getting hijacked by a fake volunteer without genuine intentions to help.  The organization and structure of GWB make it unique compared to other NGOs that also help with water distribution. Even though it is a community-based management style organization, GWB leaves its communities with large funding to continue efforts and to go towards the maintenance of the water supply. The education that GWB supplies is also game-changing.  Since GWB provides an education stipend, students of any financial background are free to enroll in courses. Also, since GWB collaborates with other groups, they are able to save money and help fund more trainings and projects. This means that the students that GWB trained are diverse and multi-faceted, further strengthening the team. GWB has multiple projects around the world, but its projects in Africa are mainly centered around water management and water distribution. Even though GWB has been around for only 12 years, they have completed over 45 projects. In Kenya, GWB helped over 5,000 in just 10 short days. After the main volunteers left, the students installed even more wells on their own. In Uganda, volunteers and students worked together to help repair over 2 wells a day! Those students also went on to bring even more water to the Gulu district. In South Africa, GWB went and brought water to an Internally Displaced Persons camp and worked with other organizations to train volunteers as well. GWB has been deliberate in the way that they handle international aid. This means that they avoid most of the issues that many other aid organizations struggle with. One issue that GWB does have is the fact that certain volunteers disrespect the people and communities that they are trying to help in an attempt to get donation money. Although GWB is far from perfect, I believe they are making substantive positive changes. With small improvements, I think that this organization can become even better. 

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


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[1] Geary, Soundoff, Seismic. “Seismic Soundoff, the SEG Podcast.” Society of Exploration Geophysicists, 2018,  

[2] Bauman, Paul. Paul Bauman Blog. 2019,  

[3] GWB. Society of Exploration Geophysicists,

[4] Bauman, Paul. Community Groundwater Supply Development in the Acholiland Northern Uganda, Groundwater Geophysical Exploration, Well Repair, Drilling, Well Construction, and Water Chemistry Study. 2018. Geoscientists without Borders. 

[5] Bauman, Paul. Mapping resources that matter: Paul Bauman at TEDxCanmore. 2013.

[6] Bauman, Paul. The Geophysical Exploration for Groundwater at the Kakuma Refugee Camp and the Proposed Kalobeyei Camp at the Proposed Kalobeyei Refugee Camp in Turkana County, Kenya. 2016, UNHCR. 

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