Oil and water shouldn’t mix in South Sudan

BHEARD's Flora Lado wants to remove the excess water from South Sudan's oil industry and redirect it toward agricultural uses.

Flora Lado collects water and soil samples in South Sudan.

South Sudan has a water problem: The country’s farmers and cattle keepers don’t have enough of it, while its oil industry has too much.

Flora Lado, a resident of South Sudan and Ph.D. student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, wants to solve the problem by removing the excess water from her country’s oil industry and redirecting it toward agricultural uses like crop irrigation and drinking water for livestock.

Lado, who’s studying mining and minerals engineering, is a scholar in the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development program. The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

Lado, seen above taking samples, said some of South Sudan’s oil wells have an unusually high ratio of water, which is negatively affecting the quality and quantity of oil. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s farmers and livestock handlers mainly rely on rainfall for water, an inconsistent source. Competition over scarce water and green land causes conflicts between the country’s cattle keepers and farmers. If Lado and other researchers can find a way to get unwanted water out of oil wells and use it to irrigate crops and grass and as drinking water for cattle and goats, they will improve food security and minimize conflicts between South Sudan’s farmers and cattle keepers. 

As part of her research, Lado took water and soil samples in South Sudan oil fields in April and May, 2017. She traveled from the capital, Juba, to oil fields in the northern part of the country. She said her work was greatly aided by BHEARD, Virginia Tech and South Sudan’s petroleum industry.

“My trip for water and soil sample collection was a great experience, and has expanded my networking beyond geology, petroleum engineering and teaching,” she said. “It is important to continue to work with this team in research when I return to South Sudan.”

It was Lado’s second research trip to her home country. During the first, she gathered production data and geological information. Her focus during the second trip was collecting produced water and soil samples (she said “produced” water is a term used in the oil and gas industry to describe water that is pumped out of the ground).

Lado will study the soil samples to characterize their properties. She’ll analyze the water samples to find out if produced water san safely be used for agricultural purposes. Further research will be done to suggest treatment techniques. 

Lado, who holds a bachelor’s degree in geology and mining and a master’s degree in petroleum engineering, is a member of South Sudan’s National Petroleum and Gas Commission, a regulatory body that monitors oil and gas line operations. She also teaches geology and petroleum courses at the University of Juba and other South Sudanese universities, where her students are potential employees in the oil and gas industry. 

When Lado earns her Ph.D. and goes back to South Sudan, she will return to her teaching duties and continue her research. She expects obstacles – changing policies, slow communications, limited resources – but doesn’t expect them to stop her work.

“I told my mother it takes determination and patience to continue to do research with so many challenges, and she told me, ‘Daughter, you can do it,’” Lado said.

– Matt Milkovich

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