Canadian Consulting Engineer

Florence Nightingale and the Problems of Infrastructure

November 1, 2004
By Bronwen Parsons

Among the entries in this year's awards -- but sadly, not among the winners (see page 26) -- was a master plan by R.V. Anderson & Associates of Toronto to revamp the sewage system of Bombay in India.

Among the entries in this year’s awards — but sadly, not among the winners (see page 26) — was a master plan by R.V. Anderson & Associates of Toronto to revamp the sewage system of Bombay in India.

With a population one-third the size of Canada’s, and despite a booming commercial economy, more than 50 per cent of Bombay’s citizens still live in slums. They have scant access to clean water, and their children play in streets that are open sewers.

If you thought we had left this kind of squalor behind in the Victorian era, think again. A sewer system was built in Bombay 100 years ago, but it has failed completely to live up to the population growth. To improve the situation, Bombay hired R.V. Anderson to devise a wastewater master plan for a staged program of drains, treatment and outfall structures. The 25-year goal is to have the city’s discharge wastewater meet international standards.

Coincidentally, I recently read a biography about Florence Nightingale by Elspeth Huxley (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995). I hadn’t known that besides revolutionizing hospitals and nursing during the Crimean War and later in England, Nightingale was also absorbed with the problems of India. Her interest in the country began with trying to clean up the sanitary and health conditions of British soldiers stationed there, who were dying of disease at a dreadful rate. She soon realized that no change in the military was possible without improvements in India at large. In Bangalore, for example, 100,000 Indians lived within the army’s precincts.

It’s amazing to me how much influence this diminutive woman wielded upon the governments and policies of her day. Confined to her bed during most of her middle age, surrounded by cats and flowers, Nightingale spent days and nights holding court with bureaucrats, writing letters, analyzing statistics and penning thick reports. Driven by a deep religious conviction, she drove herself and others ruthlessly, and as a result the world changed in material ways.

I then picked up a biography about another woman who worked to help the poor in India. Desmond Doig’s study of Mother Teresa (Collins, 1976) includes searing black and white photographs of Calcutta: people maimed and dying, huddled in dirty blankets on the streets — a sight not unfamiliar in Canadian cities today. Within a few decades of leaving the convent in 1948 to start her work with the poor, Mother Teresa had overcome local resistance, found buildings and set up establishments that brought comfort to millions. At the time Doigon wrote, the Missionaries of Charity had 61 foundations in India, 28 abroad, 81 schools, 335 mobile dispensaries, 28 family planning centres, 67 leprosy clinics, 28 homes for abandoned children and 32 homes for dying destitutes.

What I learned from these books is just how much difference one person can make if they’re convicted, selfless and willing to lead. That’s the kind of person we need today in government to drive through the studies that engineers spend so much time on, and to ensure the plans translate into actual physical infrastructure to serve the millions still in need.


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