South Africa has another chance to attract experts in the field of water engineering from other parts of the world and develop new water engineers and experts as it prepares to invest in water infrastructure, says water research body Water Research Commission of South Africa (WRC) CEO Dhesigen Naidoo.
He was echoing the call made by renowned South African water engineer and honorary president of the International Commission on Large Dams (Icold) Dr Theo van Robbroeck at the launch of a history book on South Africa’s large dams.
“The Department of Water Affairs was known for training young engineers and we were given experience in the construction of dams, which led to a flood of young engineers, some of whom were also given the opportunity to study in France and the US to gain knowledge of concrete dams,” Van Robbroeck said of his time as a young water engineer.
He highlighted the importance of involvement by the department in facilitating training and development, and encouraged the reintroduction of water boards as effective water management and skills development mechanisms.
“Recruitment from other countries was also done, including refugees from the Eastern European countries, which secured invalu- able expertise for the country.”
“Expertise from outside South Africa is very important,” said Naidoo, highlighting that the need for water security meant the country had to engage its youth and develop its water science and infrastructure.
This new body of skills was required not only to operate and maintain the country’s multi- billion-rand bulk water infrastructure, but also to create alternative water supplies as potential dam sites became increasingly scarce and expensive to develop, he said.
“Until we can find a reliable alternative to dams as a way to store water in South Africa, it is up to the new generation of dam builders to devise and implement schemes to manage our water resources sustainably,” writes historian and Water Wheel editor Lani van Vuuren.
Her book, In the footsteps of giants, provides a succinct history of South Africa’s large dams and their construction, including an overview of their importance in South Africa’s development.
“In the footsteps of giants is quite correct,” said Van Robbroeck at the event and named several prominent South African water engineers who had built the water-scarce country’s critical network of dams and water-transfer schemes.
“Rivers provide South Africa’s only large-scale resources of fresh water and the country had no choice but to construct storage dams to provide a reliable supply of water for various purposes. South African dam builders have mastered the art and science of manipulating water flows to allow the country to unlock its economic potential,” writes Van Vuuren.
“The development of large infrastructure remains essential for human survival and economic development, especially in South Africa with its limited water resources and erratic climate. Dams allow us to develop our economy, grow our food, generate electricity and power our industries,” she highlights.
“Almost all of South Africa’s available water resources are currently being tapped, with overallocation of resources occurring in many of the country’s catchments. Population growth is placing further strain on limited resources, and the poor quality of wastewater discharges is driving our water sector into a critical state,” notes Van Vuuren.
“A recurring theme throughout the world is the shortage of technical water engineering skills,” noted South African National Committee on Large Dams (Sancold) chairperson and master dam engineer Danie Badenhorst at the launch.
Badenhorst lauded the book for encouraging awareness and understanding of the importance of water expertise and dams for South Africa.
Further, Sancold offered scholarships for postgraduate studies, worked closely with the WRC and provided continuous professional development credits for engineers who attended its technical events, he added.
“There is an opportunity for South Africa to offer water sector training to Africa, owing to a good knowledge of the African environment, which can also help to attract some of the brightest water engineers in the world. For example, South Africa’s water sector currently helps to advise the 22 fellow African Icold member States on matters of common interest.
“In the future, we can build on the work of our forebears. The challenges are dif- ferent but can be overcome by good colla- boration between organisations and people involved in the water sector,” concluded Badenhorst.