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Summit signals change of engineers role

AMBITIOUS TARGETS for water supply and sanitation set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg are not necessarily good news for multinational utilities hoping to pick up major infrastructure contracts.

The summit agreed to try to halve the number of people without access to sanitation to 1.2bn by 2020 and to have access to clean water for all.

The event produced a change in thinking by the World Bank and leading aid agencies on how best to meet these targets.

Appalling statistics of suffering and death around the world caused by poor water and sanitation made discussions over amounts of money needed to meet the targets relatively straightforward for politicians.

What was unexpected was the strong message sent to governments and engineers about the need to rethink approaches to meeting these needs.

Calling for 'no more hardware', the United Nations and the World Bank said that over the last 20 to 30 years experience of major water infrastructure schemes showed that they often failed to benefit the people they were aimed at.

High profile campaigns led by the various UN bodies and water and health aid agencies at the summit called for hygiene education and sanitation targets as well as water supply improvements.

The message was the same in the discussions on increasing access to energy and other civil engineering infrastructure.

All around the developing world lie broken pipes, pumps, engines, mills and vehicles: the vast majority of development schemes involving technology are abandoned within two years.

Even when the capital investment is totally subsidised, schemes are rarely sustainable because of a lack of revenue to pay for repairs and maintenance, combined with a shortage of local skills to carry out repairs.

Smaller scale solutions suited to local capabilities and spheres of understanding are now considered more likely to have long term success.

The role of engineers in these countries will need to change, along with their perception of what constitutes success.

Contractors and consultants may find the work less lucrative, but could still find opportunities in the development of teams of personnel who can work in communities, integrating appropriate technology and solutions to everyday lives.

Membership of disaster relief organisations like RedR is growing. Maybe the time has come to extend this way of community working to normal not just abnormal times. The team of engineers need not be volunteers - funding could be justified in the same way as a large dam and hydro scheme might be.

INFOPLUS For statistics and more information see the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council www. wsscc. org

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