Life as an engineer can be rewarding, but for Arup dam engineer Ljiljana Spasic-Gril it has meant weeks away from home to undertake remote site visits - a sacrifice she believes has been worth it.
When engineers are asked why they chose a career in geotechnics, many will say it was inspired by seeing the construction of an iconic building during their formative years. For Arup associate director Ljiljana Spasic-Gril it was more than just construction that inspired her and shaped her career as a dam engineer – it was more about the idea of being able to improve society.
“I was always fascinated with engineering structures, but not just building – I was interested in how engineering could really help people,” she explains. “I did a course on dams as part of my degree and I was struck by the multi-purpose nature of them. They can provide potable and irrigation water, flood control and hydroelectric power – all things that can help people.”
This passion clearly still motivates Spasic-Gril and has led her to become one of Arup’s leaders in the field of dam engineering having joined the company a year ago. “My whole career has been very focused on dams,” she says.
Spasic-Gril gained a scholarship from Energoprojekt in her native Serbia while undertaking her degree civil engineering at the University of Belgrade and then joined the company on graduation. “After my degree I started to work with Energoprojekt’s dams group and I have never wanted to alter my career path,” she says. “It is a very specialist area.”
Spasic-Gril then moved to the UK more than 20 years ago to undertake a master’s degree in geotechnics and engineering seismology at Imperial College, but she was soon back working in the dam sector for Jacobs after completing the course.
“I was always fascinated with engineering structures, but not just building – I was interested in how engineering could really help people”
Her work has been far from office based – she has travelled extensively on business – and this is something that has clearly added to the enjoyment of her career.
“I have worked on over 200 different projects in 40 different countries,” she says. “I have been to all the countries in north Africa, Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as many countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I have also worked in China and Sri Lanka.”
Of all these locations, one in particular appears to have made the most impact on Spasic-Gril, not just because of the country itself but also because of the dams involved – the nation in question is the Republic of Tajikistan in central Asia.
“It is a very small country – probably one of the poorest in the world – bordered by Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan,” says Spasic-Gril. “But there is great potential for hydropower schemes to improve the country’s economy through the export of energy. Getting these hydropower projects going will be key to improving the standard of living there.”
“The country holds another record for dams – it is also the location of the world’s largest natural dam”
The country has a shortage of electricity but work is underway to develop schemes that would change this and realise the country’s ambition to export power.
Spasic-Gril first visited Tajikistan in 2000, immediately after the end of the civil war, and has worked on five or six dam schemes there.
“Tajikistan holds the record for the tallest man-made dam. Its Nurek Dam is a 300m high embankment structure that was built in the 1970s,” she says. “The earth structure was selected for the site because it could cope with the ground conditions and faults that run through the area better than a concrete structure. It’s amazing.”
The country holds another record for dams – it is also the location of the world’s largest natural dam. Surprisingly, the dam that holds back Lake Sarez is twice the height of the Nurek Dam at 600m and Spasic-Gril had the opportunity to see it for herself in 2001.
“The Usoy Dam was formed by a landslide following an earthquake in 1911,” she explains. “The 2km³ landslide holds back a 17km³ body of water and I was part of a team that was asked to look at the safety of the structure and assess measures to reduce the risk of failure.”
This was no easy task – the dam is at 4,000m elevation with no road access and no villages nearby. The 15-strong team Spasic-Gril worked with was flown to the site by helicopter for the 14-day expedition. “We camped at the site and had to take everything for the trip with us – including a cook to cater for us all,” she says. “It was almost like a hiking holiday, but some of the team suffered from altitude sickness, so the work was challenging.”
The team was charged with looking at the safety issues related to the formation of the dam. “If the dam were to burst then the consequences would be huge,” explains Spasic- Gril. “The flood wave would travel over hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.”
The solution proposed after the site visit and subsequent analysis is to build a bypass tunnel to help lower the water level behind the dam to safer levels and to also build a hydropower plant at the site to make use of the impounded water.
“It is very interesting learning about different cultures and different people – there is always something new to learn”
Since the site visit, instrumentation has been installed to allow ongoing monitoring, but the project is currently awaiting funding for further works. Until this is secured, detailed design for the project will not start.
Working on these remote schemes has taken Spasic-Gril away from her family for extended periods, which she says has been challenging, but the travel has allowed her to immerse herself in the local culture of the regions she visits. “It is very interesting learning about different cultures and different people – there is always something new to learn,” she says.
Remote but amazing
“Often the places I visit are so remote that there are no hotels and I stay with local families. It is amazing to stay somewhere with no running water and no electricity and yet their children are immaculately turned out when they head off to school and they cook amazing food too.”
Spasic-Gril’s other passion is history and she says that working on dam projects allows her to combine her hobby with her work.
In addition to her engineering skills, Spasic-Gril is also fluent in Russian, French and English, as well as her native Serbian.
Joining Arup, which has an office in Belgrade, has allowed her to work in Serbia for the first time in many years. “I travel back there twice a year to visit my family,” she says. “But now I am also going to the office in Belgrade when I go and I am trying to help them move into the hydropower market and gain work in the field.”
Nonetheless, Spasic-Gril’s next assignment will take her to more tropical climes – she has just started work on a dam project in Mauritius, which she confesses she is very excited about.
“This is a great opportunity for the local office to gain new skills and knowledge”
“The project involves raising the height of an existing dam that stores water for irrigation in the region to create more storage,” she says. “The embankment dam was built in colonial times – about 100 years ago – and is a similar construction to Victorian dams of the same type in the UK.
“We will be looking at the history of the structure, checking that it was built according to the plans we have and is suitable for raising.”
The work is being funded by the World Bank and Spasic-Gril and a team of experts from the UK were due to fly out to the region at the beginning of December to get the scheme underway. “As well as specialists from the UK we will be working with about 20 people from Arup’s office in Port Louis,” she says. “This is a great opportunity for the local office to gain new skills and knowledge and we will also be providing training for the client.”
Design work is expected to take six months and construction will take another year after the contract has been put out to tender.
World Bank and beyond
Spasic-Gril’s work with the World Bank extends beyond her responsibilities to Arup though – she is also on the World Bank Panel of Experts for Rogun Dam in Tajikistan, which if built will take the title of world’s tallest man-made dam from Nurek.
“The Rogun Dam would be 335m when finished,” she says. “It would be located 70km upstream from the Nurek Dam and is based on a Russian design. Construction was actually started in the 1980s but abandoned at an early stage.
“I have learnt to survive on very little sleep”
The scheme I am advising on is looking at the potential to restart work on the dam.” The scheme includes a 3,600MW hydropower plant, which would give a significant boost to the country’s electricity production and enable it to start exporting power. The consultation process is expected to take 18 months, but Spasic-Gril says the completion date for the project depends on it securing funding.
As if her work for Arup and the World Bank is not enough, Spasic- Gril is also busy preparing a proposal to undertake expert witness work for a case in New Zealand.
“The time difference means working through the night, but I have learnt to survive on very little sleep,” she says. “I do it because it is more than just a career – I really enjoy it. Seeing the finished project and getting the support from the local communities during the construction phase really helps make it worth it.”