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The question: Engineer as God

In Australia local scientists are horrified that business leaders are backing a project to divert several major rivers back inland to irrigate drought-hit areas. In what circumstances is it acceptable for engineers to play God?

My initial reaction is that civil engineers should not play God, but when you start to think laterally we change our environment and therefore arguably 'play God' every day. On balance I think we need to decide whether our aims are sustainable, and if not question whether it is right to proceed.

Charis Fowler, 30, senior engineer, Midlands

My hydraulics lecturer was also a keen canoeist in his spare time. His philosophy was simple - play God only if it benefits canoeists! Leave water to find its natural course, and do not be tempted to turn rivers into open concrete drainage channels devoid of plant and animal life and dangerous to frequenters.

David Cormie, structural engineer, Warrington

Acceptability is not an issue. It is not possible for engineers to play God. Whether it is acceptable to divert a river is an entirely different question. It depends on the results.

David Tomlinson, 57, principal engineer, Argyll

Surely anything that we civil engineers have been doing for thousands of years could be considered as playing God in that we have altered the course of nature for the benefit of our fellows. Why does diverting a river to redirect water resources differ from building dams, digging ditches, or pumping water from wells? I only wish we received the recognition our near-divine status deserves!

Derek Goodchild, 55, highway manager, Eastleigh

For all the intelligence of humans, we are the only animals that destroy the habitat in which we live.

So why should altering a few rivers suddenly cause concern?

Andy Eggleston, 28, traffic engineer, Milton Keynes

I do not believe that engineers could ever play God - we are merely rather good at playing with the gifts God has given us. Most global crises could be reduced or solved by engineers if the political and financial will was there, so it would be so refreshing if politicians and financiers would play God once in a while.

Jerry Cutter, 48, associate, South Wales

I see nothing wrong in making river diversions but they must be thought through and not cause worse consequences. If we really could play God, how about tackling the re-forestation of the Sahara?

R Herd, 71, retired, Stratford-on-Avon

Engineers as supreme beings of monotheist religions? I think not.

Engineers meeting vital human needs, reducing disease and improving life? Yes, of course, every day. Engineering reorganising the natural world? That is tricky. Too often, what improves life for some, risks harming others.

Nature itself is no help - every organism is ultimately selfish. So if we want to transform landscapes, it is important we rise a little above nature, and probably embrace fuzzier decision-making processes, to reach technically correct yet morally-acceptable solutions.

Jon Balley, 51, water engineer, Bucks

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