South Africa needs all available engineers, says former Saice president

30th July 2021 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor

South Africa needs all available built environment professionals, especially engineers, to build and manage infrastructure for the benefit of the country's development and future generations, civil engineer and former South African Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice) president Sam Amod said this week.

Presenting the inaugural seminar as part of Saice's Support Our Students initiative, he highlighted the value of the built environment, which was worth trillions of rands and represents the largest fixed asset base of the country.

He also cited the developmental benefits that arise from access to infrastructure.

"Public infrastructure is the basis on which all society's progress and prosperity is leveraged and is a crucial part of what makes a nation. It is there for all citizens of a country and is a public good. A public good is an economic term and refers to items that are non-exclusive and non-frivolous and which are not diminished by use.

"Infrastructure as a public good works at three levels. The first is infrastructure to provide for the basic needs of citizens and includes health, safety, access to clean water, sanitation and shelter. The second level is to engender social mobility and access to opportunities, not only underpinning increased life expectancy, such as providing basic schooling and transport to improve access to opportunities for work," he said.

The third level of infrastructure is economic and catalytic infrastructure, such as ports, rail and tertiary education institutions, which enables the creation of businesses and jobs.

A key aspect of infrastructure as a public good is that all levels of society have access to it; the poor and disadvantaged have as much access to the infrastructure as the wealthy and access to infrastructure helps to moderate inequalities.

There are challenges facing engineering professionals, including political and corruption pressures, that can be managed by adhering to strict professional, fact- and evidence-based engineering practices, said Amod.

He highlighted that airports in South Africa tend to receive better scores in the Saice infrastructure report card, as they must conform with international standards as international airlines will not use airports that do not comply.

"Where there are international standards, agencies comply. These make State-owned enterprises more efficient and effective, as well as profitable," Amod noted.

Further, this adherence to engineering professionalism also extends to building infrastructure that addresses needs not only of clients, but of all beneficiaries and-users, he added.

"While the engineering industry depends on its clients for work, there is still a requirement to determine whether the infrastructure is right for its role.

"To ensure the right infrastructure is built, there need to be suitably skilled, knowledgeable and ethical people in all facets of public infrastructure development, including government departments and agencies, private sector companies and industry associations."

Amod highlighted the importance of infrastructure by quoting South African physician and University of the Witwatersrand professor Dr Harry Seftel, who said modern civil engineering had done more to improve the health of humankind than all the advances in medical science.

Developed nations have higher proportions of engineers in the population, with about one engineer per 300 citizens compared with developing nations, which tend to have one engineer per 600 or 800 citizens. This metric is one engineer in 3 000 in South Africa, Amod said, using research conducted by former Saice president Allyson Lawless.

"Developed nations tend to have greater proportions of engineers than doctors when compared with developing nations. This is because of the benefits provided by effective infrastructure, and why we need to effectively employ every built environment professional we can lay our hands on."

Engineers and built environment professionals needed to be activists and bring to the attention of the authorities and the people who are employing them the requirements and needs of infrastructure, said Amod.

"The role of engineering is comparable to the medical fraternity, albeit that the provision of benefits is not to individuals, but to millions of people. The engineering industry and practitioners must adhere to similarly high standards of accuracy, reliability, safety and effectiveness."

"Public infrastructure is the greatest asset a nation has. More than R800-billion is spent a year on infrastructure, indicating its value. The care for public assets is shared between the State and users, but we must also ensure asset management is embedded in our organisations and that the required agencies carry out their role in protecting this asset, including by investing in maintenance."

Amod added that infrastructure systems were inter-related and that the failure in one set of infrastructure would cause congestion in another, such as a failure in the rail sector causing greater volumes of road traffic and greater degradation of the road and, potentially, a loss of both.

Improving infrastructure management will improve the benefits derived from it and reduce the pressure on other infrastructure systems, further reducing maintenance and ad hoc costs, as well as increasing the investment environment of a country.

In contrast, poor management and maintenance of infrastructure reduces the direct financial and indirect health and economic benefits of infrastructure, which reduces the investment attractiveness of the country.

Infrastructure investment is one of the sure ways of addressing poverty, access to opportunities and inequality, he said.