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A Week to Celebrate Life-Saving Earth Sciences

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This week is Earth Science Week - a time to celebrate and explore our natural world and the work of geoscientists globally - and what better way to start it than with an extraordinary jump from the edge of space.

Felix Baumgartner, the 43-year-old Austrian sky diver who leapt into the atmosphere 24-miles above the earth on Sunday, not only smashed a number of world records, but collected invaluable scientific data for use in future space travel and atmospheric sciences.

While not everyone in the sector can make such a dramatic and daring contribution to earth sciences, many geoscientists, like those Christian Aid is working with in the Philippines, are quietly and diligently using their research to help save thousands of lives every year.

Several years ago, Christian Aid in the Philippines decided that simply providing emergency aid to poor communities whose make-shift homes are annually submerged by monsoon and typhoon flooding was not enough. Now, with funding provided partly by UK Aid, they work with some of the country's top earth scientists to help find practical solutions for the tens of thousands of poverty-stricken slum-dwellers in cities across the country.

Beleaguered families in Metro Manila for instance are forced to reside on flood plains simply because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. For them, life is all about coping with and adjusting to the turmoil and chaos the rainy season brings, and hoping they will survive it. Most feel they have no choice but to face the river's annual torment.

Mother-of-five Belen de Guzman, whose home on the edge of the Marikina River is regularly submerged, told me: "During the months of August to December, we experience flooding seven to eight times. I cannot describe what I feel, I sometimes panic but I know I have to be strong for my children."

Through working collaboratively with scientist commissioned through the Manila Observatory, urban communities supported by Christian Aid - like Belen's in Banaba - are able to take more control over their precarious situation, understand their environment and the geological hazards they face, and prepare for the worst.

They are also able to use the latest scientific research, such as that by the Marine Science Institute which confirmed more than 80 river constrictions affecting the natural direction and flow of Manila's two major rivers, to lobby their government for long-term lasting solutions.

While, it's blindingly obvious that science needs to benefit mankind, it's not always obvious how it does so directly at a community level and it's also rare to see such a strong and tangible link between these disparate worlds. Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Manila Observatory and Jesuit priest, Jose Ramon T Villarin, told me that he's simply a man of the cloth who happens to be a scientist, not the other way around. He believes that science has a human face, and that it can make a real difference to peoples' lives. And he's absolutely right.

When I met Dr. Carlos Primo C. David, from the National Institute of Geological Sciences in Quezon City, he explained that for years he'd been researching flooding from a scientific point of view without ever taking the social aspect into account. The aim of his studies was simply to see if his models were accurately predicting what would happen, but it stopped there.

However, since working with Christian Aid's local NGO partners, he admits that knowing how the impact of a simple computer model can actually be translated into real responses on the ground has been a real eye opener.

Now he regularly visits poor urban communities to help educate them about the different ways in which they can improve their safety and resilience. He has helped to establish stream gauges and trained people how to monitor the river, partnered upstream and downstream communities so that real-time rainfall and river data can be shared, and worked with community groups to produce comprehensive evacuation plans.

In the future, Dr. Carlos Primo C. David hopes that individual community members will fully understand the science behind their changing environment, and how important this information is to their personal lives, so that they no longer have to rely on community leaders, organisations like Christian Aid or the government in order to cope.

Dr Carlos Primo C David and the other scientists mentioned here, feature in Christian Aid's new interactive documentary 'Big River Rising', which explores how Manila's riverside slum dwelling community uses science to fight flooding.

Big River Rising by Christian Aid (needs Flash)