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Opening the floodgates

A great deal has changed for Halcrow's water and environment engineers over the past two decades. Judith Cruickshank reports

'Twenty years ago we were changing the filters on village sewage works, ' says Mike Adams, director for wastewater at Halcrow Water.

Today the consultant is a major player in the water and environment sectors. Chief executive John Lawson proudly displays a set of figures taken from the latest New Civil Engineer Consultants File that shows Halcrow with a turnover of ú43.5M ($62.3m) in this area, second only to Hyder.

For most of the last century Halcrow's involvement in the water sector was limited to hydroelectric schemes and irrigation projects - traditional consultancy areas. During the 1980s the firm began to get involved with municipal water work. But the final decade saw major expansion. Halcrow's water division now employs 800 people.

'Some of the growth was organic, and some came through acquisition, ' Lawson explains.

One such move was Halcrow's 1996 takeover of Scottish based Crouch Hogg Waterman, a wellestablished water specialist.

And when the privatised Southern Water decided to outsource its engineering design in 1997, Halcrow emerged as the successful bidder, acquiring a further 70 experienced staff and the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects.

Some of these were not of a size and nature traditionally to draw the firepower of Halcrow, but experience gained has proved valuable in enhancing the firm's overall capability.

UK Southern Water's new Portsmouth treatment plant, however, could hardly be described as mundane. This ú76.6M project, being built by Amec, is designed to improve water quality in the Solent. Halcrow is charged with the detailed design and construction support for the scheme which includes redevelopment and upgrading of the existing Budds Farm treatment works. This will boast the largest spiral lamella settlement tanks to be installed in the UK.

Even more state of the art will be the new ú75M Thames Water sewage treatment works at Reading, west of London, where Halcrow is preparing design and build bid documents. With hardly a metre of spare space on the original site, Thames has opted to build a new works on land opposite which will be a showcase operation producing high quality effluent and equally high quality sludge treatment.

However significant the firm's involvement in the British water industry may be, the map of the world in the office of water and environment director Michael Norton has a satisfying number of flags in every continent signalling current projects.

Halcrow's first major overseas water work was in Latin America in 1990 with the privatisation of water supplies in Buenos Aires in Argentina, after which the firm took on a regulatory role.

From that came work in Chile, Venezuela and Paraguay. Today, chief executive Lawson estimates that it is probably the leading UK water and environmental specialist in South America.

But while South America is still an important market, much of the firm's effort is now concentrated in Europe and in particular in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. Working in this area Lawson found that he could bring to the table a useful skill which had been lying dormant. 'I learned Russian 35 years ago when it was thought that all engineers and scientists should be able to speak the language.'

At that time the Western world's view of the Soviet empire was very different. It is doubtful whether those young engineers imagined they would be calling on their professional and language skills to help in the regeneration of a crumbling, poorly constructed infrastructure and the turnaround of many years of environmental neglect.

Currently 10 countries in the former eastern block are seeking eventual accession to the European Union: the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, plus Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Accession means compliance with EU regulations and in many areas the candidates are far from being able to meet the required standards.

Water supply and waste disposal systems require massive upgrading and Halcrow has been closely involved, advising both the European Commission and the candidate states.

In particular, the firm is working in Romania. Halcrow teams are currently helping two cities prepare their bids for EU grants to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities and drinking water supply. One team is in Timisoara in the south of the country, the other is advising on projects in the area of Iasi, near the border with Moldavia.

EU grants will fund 75% of the project cost but the water companies concerned must arrange the other 25% - a considerable undertaking in a country like Romania.

Nor is completing the application for EU funding a simple matter. The form is 'three or four inches thick', explains Lawson. Projects are now being worked up ready for tendering next year.

As well as tackling the necessary studies and the tender document, the Halcrow team has to instigate a form of management training of the Romanian engineers.

'You have to teach them to think in a way which is objective rather than prescriptive, ' explains John Martin, one of the engineers involved in the work. Under the former regime, standards were in some areas unrealistically high and the procedures were not always appropriate to the situation.

Halcrow is encouraging its Romanian engineer clients to abandon rote thinking and to look at the outcome they want to achieve.

The firm has also helped to identify the practical problems facing the water companies.

Some are easily spotted, as construction and maintenance of facilities has generally been poor. Raw effluent is often discharged directly into watercourses. And one of the districts in Iasi has only intermittent water supply.

Other problems are symptomatic of how the country has changed in recent years. For example senior environmental scientist Eamon Mulhall has identified a change in the composition of effluents in Timisoara due to the decline in industry.

But helping to put the country back on its feet certainly makes for job satisfaction. And withbars and cafes opening and goods in the shops nor do the team members find it a hardship posting.

With an office now firmly established in Bucharest, Halcrow is set to play a continuing part in the country's renaissance.

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