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Disasters - show the need to engineering so step forward

Earthquake in China and Cyclone in Burma highlight the vital role that engineers play to bring relief to those in desperate need. Step forward with your skills says NCE editor Antony Oliver

The shocking scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake in China on 12 May and by the cyclone in Burma on 3 May is only just seeping into the public consciousness.
Both disasters make for difficult viewing. Yet both disasters completely underline the vitally important role that basic civil engineering- water, sanitation, transport - plays in supporting “normal” life and the havoc that unfolds when its provision is denied.
It is thanks to on-going media coverage of the scenes that we can understand the human tragedies unfolding in these two traditionally secretive nations.
Of course there are differences in the way that the two countries have responded. Images of rescuers in China as they continue to battle against significant odds to search for survivors contrast horribly with the pictures smuggled out of Burma of thousands living in the open alongside corpse-filled streams.
The unfathomable response of the government in Burma has without question turned a natural disaster into a man-made humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, what we see unfolding across a massive area of very inhospitable terrain in China is almost certainly going to dwarf anything previously seen in terms of impact on people, communities and infrastructure.
The question remains, therefore, what is the appropriate response from the engineering profession in the UK and worldwide?
Like so many developing nations, infrastructure in rural China - in contrast to the highly engineered infrastructure being prepared in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games - has clearly had a long history of substandard construction, poor quality materials and a lack of appreciation of the risks associated with building in an earthquake zone.
And once again, the outcome provides very real lessons for engineers, planners and politicians about the design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure, cities and homes in such earthquake prone regions.
Yet while China has very talented and capable engineers, there is clearly an important role for the profession to give technical support and provide international experience to ensure that the communities are put back together effectively. But it is perhaps the human level that engineering must respond first. The great work being done by professional engineers from disaster relief charity RedR and the many other charities such as the Red Cross and Save the Children to deliver real and practical solutions to those in desperate need cannot be under-estimated.
Professional engineers possess life-saving skills. Now is the moment, if you are able, to step forward to offer your skills in any way that you can. And let us know if you are involved in helping – your example will inspire others.

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