Sustainability starts where life starts – at the source

The topics of climate change, environmental protection and sustainability are on everybody’s lips. For some, the latter is something of a fashionable buzzword. But its significance is actually quite far-reaching. It was back in 1987 that the United Nations gave a definition of sustainable development in the so-called Brundtland Report that remains valid to this day: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In other words, sustainability is an investment in the future. We can take this at a very personal level, for example when we think about our own children, but it applies just as much to business life too. By thinking in the short term, you may secure a profit for the quarter, but by considering the long term, you can secure the future of an entire company, a municipality or a country. It is our job to help you with this.

The Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) is a leading European competence centre for the assessment and sustainable use of geological resources.

Our motto ‘For Earth and for Us’ serves as our overarching objective and our positioning. The global economy is changing at a rapid pace and is following the megatrend of adaptation to climate change and the mitigation of its effects. We operate in Finland and in other Scandinavian countries, but we also see ourselves as a global player as we have many years of experience in these areas, which we are able to apply to our projects around the world – from services to scientific research, from collaboration with mining companies to advising governments. And we mainly focus on four areas: information solutions, the circular economy, battery minerals and water management, alongside all aspects of geology.

High-tech water management solutions

Water management is often underestimated as a topic. Talking about water scarcity instantly conjures up images of deserts – we think of Africa, not countries in the northern hemisphere. And when we hear ‘climate change’, many of us think of rising sea levels, but not of a shortage of drinking water. Nonetheless, climatic changes are giving rise to precisely such problems in many regions.

Take Germany, for example, where the 2018 drought featuring high temperatures and little precipitation not only reduced agricultural yields, but also caused an increase in forest fires. And the consequences of this drought were still evident at the end of 2019 – superficially, the soil appears to have recovered, but across large swathes of Germany’s eastern and southern federal states, it is clearly too dry when you dig down to a depth of just 1.80 metres. And this can have a negative impact on plant growth.


Annual rainfall in Finland is similar to southern Europe, but evaporation here is much lower, so we don’t really ‘dry out’. However, there are places in the west and the south-west of the country which occasionally suffer from a water shortage. This is due to the fact that large parts of the country consist of a Precambrian bedrock, usually granite. When the Scandinavian Ice Sheet melted approximately 10,000 years ago, the glaciers receded and left behind narrow streamlined hills known as eskers or oses that were formed by sediment deposition from the glacier's melt water streams. These layers of sand and gravel can be more than 100 metres thick and can contain significant groundwater reserves. In some places around the world, aquifers can be several hundred metres deep and can span across several countries. But shallow aquifers like our eskers are small and are vulnerable to external influences. Changing parameters caused by, for example, climate change can therefore impact on our living conditions – especially in some areas of Finland that suffer from a lack of high-quality groundwater aquifers in the vicinity of the cities. We continue to learn from ongoing research, for example based on a combination of the analysis of core sample sediments and geophysical methods such as ground-penetrating radar and high-resolution seismic reflection. After all, we want to be able to use our groundwater in the long term, and not suddenly be left ‘high and dry’.

The region around Turku in the south-west of Finland, for instance, has a population of close to 400,000 and the city itself is a centre of commerce, a seaport and a university city.

Insufficient water reserves during dry periods and seasonal quality problems have resulted in this region’s water supply having to be switched from locally sourced surface water to aquifers which are artificially filled with river water – a technique called managed aquifer recharge (MAR). This is a project of Turku Region Water (Aki Artimo), supported and aided by GTK among other institutes and companies. Turku Region Water used a three-dimensional geological model in the planning and implementation of this project which was initiated in 2001 and was subsequently developed into a groundwater flow model. The model is now used to simulate the highly complex processes and interdependencies to make scientifically sound water resource planning decisions possible for the first time.

The globalisation of research and expertise

We then apply the knowledge garnered from such domestic projects to other projects all around the world. We were also able to apply the managed aquifer recharge (MAR) expertise described here to a project in Vietnam. The experience we have in risk assessment and risk management procedure for naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater from our RAMAS project in the Tampere region is currently helping us with an upcoming project in Nepal, where well contamination is a major health risk for the people living in the Terai region. Very practical technological developments can help research along too – together with the University of Oulu and the Finnish Environmental Institute, we are trialling drone-based water sampling in the DROMINÄ project. This could make it possible for a greater number of samples to be taken more quickly and, most importantly, more safely, in particular from large bodies of water such as lakes or from less accessible places, even autonomously and automatically in the future.

For many of these tasks, we operate within a very large network with many different partners – universities and research institutions in Finland, Europe and around the world. In DMT, we have found a partner who makes collaboration very quick and easy and who has a great deal to offer in terms of both practical and academic engineering: the staff are innovative, passionate and always keen to find a new and even better solution to a challenge, while always bearing its feasibility in the relevant markets in mind. There is the NEXT project, for example, which focuses on developing new geomodels and exploration technologies. Or the GATEWAY project, which is connecting economic development in the area of raw materials with existing education and research projects in Latin America and Africa. We are also currently developing CLOSUREMATIC, a bespoke system for the digital planning of mine closure. This is about incorporating the operational planning and implementation measures for mine closures (such as surface rehabilitation measures) into a digital management system. The processes, some of which can be extremely lengthy, can generate vast volumes of different data and can be subject to numerous approval procedures, need to be documented in a transparent and comprehensible way. This not only makes modifications easier, such as to schedules, but also secures decades’ worth of expertise, as the employees who have handled a mine for many years have often already gone into retirement before the closure plan has been effected in full.

Many of DMT’s employees live in the Ruhr region, a former mining region with numerous prime examples of mine closure projects. And DMT made a technical contribution in the area of water management in the implementation of many, if not all, of these examples. What’s more, DMT plays a key part in securing future supplies of drinking water for millions of people living in the Ruhr region by generating groundwater and mine water models. Sustainability in the area of water management is therefore more than merely an abstract term for DMT and GTK – we are familiar with and experience sustainability on a daily basis.

We are consequently involved in development projects in many countries around the world, such as the inventory and action plan for closed and abandoned mines in Zambia and sound environmental and health risk assessment for mining operations in Armenia. It is frequently also a question of developing political recommendations on the basis of science and of discussing them with the relevant authorities and interest groups. With all of these projects, everyone involved – and our customers in particular – benefit from a wealth of combined expertise which would not otherwise be available. This generates trust in the reliability of the results and in the validity of our recommendations. They say that sharing is caring – and this applies to knowledge and experience too.

Sustainability is an economic factor

The majority of people involved in the global raw materials business know full well that we must all protect water as a very valuable resource – by means of sustainable use that doesn’t put future generations in a worse position. However, it is obviously a long road from the first inventions and discoveries in the industrial age via the purely profit-oriented use of raw materials to such a carefully considered approach that also takes the long-term effects into account, including in terms of finance. So-called soft factors such as environmental protection, climate protection and labour and human rights are difficult to present in a company’s balance sheet. But we are indeed currently witnessing a change in these ways of thinking – the concepts of cost and investment are undergoing a change because consumers are often very well informed these days. A loss of reputation for a company with turnover in the billions can be a lot more expensive than the cost of remedying environmental pollution or, even better, investing in sustainable processes from the outset. I often tell my conversation partners this: ‘Working properly from the beginning means profitability in the long term. It pays off.’

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