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Broader skills base needed for engineers to solve water crisis

ICE News

Water for the world - why is it so difficult?

asks Severn Trent Water's director of asset management John Banyard in the fifth Brunel International Lecture.

CIVIL ENGINEERS must broaden their skills base to address the problems that face countries striving for safe water supply and sanitation, says John Banyard in this year's Brunel lecture.

Banyard questions why the ambition of global health organisations, including the United Nations, to provide adequate water supply and sanitation to people in developing countries, is so hard to achieve.

He considers the issues in his lecture, first presented in May at the European Local Associations Conference in Cyprus.

In the lecture Banyard delivers several key messages and provides civil engineers with serious food for thought as he examines the developed world, third world and transitional countries.

'The challenge for civil engineers is whether they will be relegated to a position of provider of appropriate technical information or whether they can assimilate enough understanding of all of the issues to enable them to fulfil the founding fathers' vision of the Institution, ' he says.

And the issues are plentiful.

According to Banyard, civil engineers need to get a grip on the financial hurdles, the economic markets and the cultural issues affecting individual communities if they are going to make any difference in the fight to provide clean water for all.

'The science and technology of water supply and sanitation are well understood.

The real challenge is deployment of these technologies in poorer countries, ' he says.

Attempts to make this happen are beset by a complex web of problems and Banyard highlights just how complicated it is.

Solutions that are offered to rural villages are often not taken up because in many countries the population consists of fatalists who see technology as a waste of time.

'You can only overcome this with education and that costs money, ' says Banyard.

In general, funding is given to countries to tackle poverty.

But where this money goes is up to the government concerned.

This often leads to money being directed to new roads and infrastructure in urban areas at the expense of adequate water supply and sanitation in rural communities.

Aid agencies and charities vary widely in the approach they take to address the problem, which, says Banyard, further complicates the issue.

'No one can say which is right and which is wrong and in all probability they will all have their place, but none of them will provide a universal model to be deployed irrespective of geography and sociology.'

Banyard also examines issues facing developed countries.

He points out that fragmented water supply and sanitation is slowly being regionalised allowing the creation of clearer targets and better regulation. Environmental quality standards set are now extremely high.

But the cost of reversing centuries of environmental pollution is escalating and this has to be added to the cost of maintaining and replacing infrastructure.

'The issue is, can we in the developed world keep driving up environmental standards when much of the infrastructure is reaching the end of its design life and has to be replaced, ' he says.

Moving on to the economics of water supply and sanitation Banyard points out the current models of finance that exist in developed countries require the existence of a sophisticated financial market for their success.

These are not readily exportable to developing and transitional countries.

Between developed countries and those trying to get there, there is not only a gulf in terms of physical water supply but also in terms of management approach, sophistication of financing and basic health education.

These fundamental issues have to be addressed if the problem is to be solved.

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