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A front line duty

Comment

Right under our noses is one of the biggest and potentially most explosive political issues ever faced by society - how to balance our insatiable desire for growth and development with the needs of the environment.

This week's cover feature highlights the vast policy reach that Barbara Young and her Environment Agency team now has. It highlights how fundamental good engineering is to achieving the desired environmental outcomes.

It is ironic therefore, that despite being the guardians of the built and natural environment, the civil engineering profession still does too little to ensure its views are heard on this crucial issue.

As a group the profession continues to covet status and reward, but remains reluctant to really embrace the concept that good environmental practice is good for business and the economy.

We seem content to toe the line and deliver what we know.

Without question, environmental issues have shot up the public and political agenda in the decade since the Environment Agency came into being. And without question civil engineers are now more deeply engaged in solving the very tough problems that are being thrown up.

But does the profession really lead the debate? Sadly, no.

This is no refl ection, of course, on the thousands of professional engineers working at the Agency.

They do a good job, often with minimal resources, to maintain the balance between nature and development.

The problem goes deeper.

It stems from the profession's inability to look at or influence government policy beyond its next meal ticket. Our position is too often one dimensional and politically naive - energy equals big power stations; waste equals big incineration and handling stations; water supply equals dams and desalination plants; fl d control equals concrete walls; transport equals new roads and railways.

To gain influence we really have to think much more astutely about how the profession sells its ideas and solutions to government and the public. After all, there are many tangible environmental issues and potential disasters waiting for the profession.

It is six months since this column described the inundation of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina as 'an engineering disgrace'. It pointed out that 'while hurricanes cannot be turned around, flood defences can be designed, maintained and strengthened to cope'.

As the column also warned, we certainly have a few engineering disgraces ready and waiting to happen.

Barbara Young calls for more funding to be invested in our flood defences to boost protection to the growing number of communities and businesses at risk. She talks about the need to tackle our water leakage problems before summer stand-pipes become the norm.

And she highlights the need for greater emphasis on investment in new power generation technologies and energy efficiency to guarantee continuous electricity supply.

But in making the case for this investment engineers must resist the temptation to simply choose the easy option. We must focus on helping government and the public to make difficult, long term decisions, underlining the fact that investment in the environment really is good for business and the whole economy.

We have these solutions.

But as I warned after Katrina in September, successful execution requires us to not only understand what has to be done but also to ensure that action is taken.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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