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Engineering The Future in Africa

Author: Gustav Rohde - Chief Operations Officer - Aurecon

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

Africa’s Century
The 21st Century has been hailed by global commentators, statesman and investors as the century that
belongs to the African continent’s development. Indeed, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director of The World Bank, writes that for too long, Africa has been defined by war, corruption and poverty. He goes on to say that Africa is now in a new era with so many success stories to tell and that this resilience was the result of a deep commitment to reform and economic stability over 15 years.

Rewriting the African story
This assertion stands in direct contrast to how the world has always perceived Africa and the realities that have given life to the expression: ‘Deepest, darkest Africa’. There has been shaking of the foundations of this belief, however, and Africa’s headlines are changing.

Aid is no longer Africa’s main foreign income – due to reduced armed conflict, improvements in macro-economic conditions and micro-economic reforms. Its economy, likewise, is experiencing improvement, with 4.9% GDP growth P/A during 2000-2008.

Per Capita – Africans are richer than India’s citizens and we’re seeing new investment partnerships with China, India, Brazil and the Middle East abound. Resources account for only a third of our Income, signalling all-important diversification.

Remarkably, the annual flow of direct foreign investment into Africa grew from $9b in 2000 to $82b in 2008, which, relative to GDP, is almost equal to direct foreign investment into China. Coupled to this, six of the 10 most rapidly expanding economies in the world over the past decade were in sub-Saharan Africa: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique and Chad.

Africa’s growth, however, is occurring amidst a global environment which faces very serious challenges.

An extraordinary crossroad
The book Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin suggests that we are at an extraordinary crossroads of human history and that our actions, or failure to act, during the next 20 years will determine the fate of the Earth and human civilization for centuries to come. It proposes that this is a make-or-break century. At the start of this century, humankind finds itself on a non-sustainable course – a course which unless changed will lead to catastrophes with awesome consequences. Humanity’s demands on the planet are growing rapidly and if we are able to make the planet and civilization work, we face a magnificent future, but if we fail, we could be headed for a new Dark Age. What he proposes is that our greatest challenge will be “…to identify and find solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century…”

Success amidst a challenging global environment
Many of these challenges are so endemic to Africa that for a long time, they have defined the continent’s course.

These challenges include global warming. Some would argue that although Africa has contributed little to the human causes of climate, the continent will be amongst the worst hit due its inability to adapt to climate change’s effects.

In addition, excessive growth in population will call for a marked focus on increasing service delivery capabilities, improving the levels of living for Africa’s people, and addressing the problem of unemployment. Added to this, the threat of mass famine will call for efforts to secure sustainable food sources and manage the risk of pandemics and the growth of shantytowns.

Water shortages, too, will contribute to the continent’s challenges. In addition, the world uses 160 billion tons more water each year than is being replenished by rain. By 2025, as many as 3.2 billion people could be living in water-scarce or water-stressed conditions. That’s one third of the world’s population.

Transition on a global scale
But The Meaning of the 21st Century is not about Doom and Gloom. It pleads for transition on a global scale and is extraordinarily optimistic in its faith is humanity to affect change. This, it would seem, is an ideal time to influence the course of history.

Implementing a roadmap to bring about change
Engineers, in particular, possess the understanding, skill and influence to chart a roadmap for change. In order to achieve this, however, they need to understand that their work isn’t only about meetings the immediate challenges. Engineers are the critical link between today’s challenges and a vision for the future. This vision, as the American Society of Civil Engineers defines it, will see engineers entrusted by society to create a sustainable world and enhance the global quality of life. They propose that engineers must “…serve competently, collaboratively, and ethically as master:
• planners, designers, constructors, and operators of society’s economic and social engine--the built environment;
• stewards of the natural environment and its resources;
• innovators and integrators of ideas and technology across the public, private, and academic sectors;
• managers of risk and uncertainty caused by natural events, accidents, and other threats; and
• leaders in discussions and decisions shaping public environmental and infrastructure policy”
Consequently, the work engineers do today needs to link to a vision for the future. It is particularly important that engineers in Africa help identify solutions for the greatest challenges we’re facing so that the solutions derived are viable on their unique continent. In Africa, in particular, this will involve getting governments, institutions of learning, corporations, private sector and society buy-in into a vision for the future.

Lastly, implicit in leadership is ensuring you have followers. In Africa, where the profession is characterised by an endemic skills shortage, this cannot be overstated. Our next generation of engineers must be taught environmental and social responsiveness so that they can carry on the work of working toward this vision.

Indeed, Africa’s coming of age has occurred amidst global turmoil, but we as engineers must seize the opportunity for change. The chance to rewrite history comes but once a century.