Sri Lankan Assistance

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UMD Aids in Establishing a Soils Research Laboratory


Pat Farrell and students in Sri Lanka  
UMD Associate Professor Pat Farrell (in blue cap) takes geography students from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, on a field trip to gather soil samples.  

A health crisis in Sri Lanka has taught a cruel lesson on the relationship between soil and drinking water. Chronic renal failure in the North Central Province of the country is of epidemic proportions and is a result of elevated exposure to cadmium contaminated phosphate fertilizer, which has been used in paddy cultivation for the past three decades.

UMD's Pat Farrell, associate professor, is working as a visiting professor at the Department of Geography of University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, this spring. As a faculty member in the UMD Department of Geography, Urban and Environmental Sustainability Studies (GUESS), she brings her expertise in soil geography to this university. Her task is to establish a soil laboratory to train academics, undergraduates, and graduate students in soils.

Farrell is conducting field, classroom, and laboratory soil training for the geography staff and students, and assisting in taking students on a country-wide field trip to examine soil/landscape relationships throughout the country.

The establishment of this laboratory is timely because the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. "Geographers and other scholars in this tiny island nation are well aware that soil, one of its most precious resources, is being degraded at an unsustainable rate," said Farrell.

The health crisis in Sri Lanka began during the Green Revolution with the distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers. Now farmlands under irrigation have polluted the River Mahaweli and the water reservoirs downstream, leading to severe health problems among the population.

Landslides are frequent and deadly in the hilly areas of the country and often could be prevented by changes in land use practices. Sri Lankan geographers are committed to educating students, farmers, and the general public in the nature and value of soil.

This project is part of an ongoing academic and research collaboration that began in 2007 between the Geography Department at UMD and the University of Kelaniya. Farrell received partial funding for the trip from the UM Global Programs and the UM Strategy Alliance International Travel Grant Program.


Pat Farrell in Sri Lanka Gathering soil samples
Farrell meets Sunanda Madduma Bandara, the vice chancellor of University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. Students in the geography program gather soil samples.
Students examine soil samples. Pat Farrell in the classroom
Farrell's students work on the correct labeling of soil samples. Farrell in the classroom.


Written by Cheryl Reitan, February, 2015.

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