Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Task Ahead

December 1, 2000
By Ben Novak, P. Eng.

The theme for FIDIC 2000, the annual conference of the international federation of consulting engineers held in Hawaii in September, was appropriately "Sustainability: the Challenge of the New Millenn...

The theme for FIDIC 2000, the annual conference of the international federation of consulting engineers held in Hawaii in September, was appropriately “Sustainability: the Challenge of the New Millennium.” Attended by large delegations from China, Japan, and other Asian countries, along with contingents from various western and developing nations, the roster of participants demonstrated the evolving zone of professional influence.

Sustainability, we learned, is not measured or judged by the same standards around the world since countries in different phases of economic development confront different problems. Of all areas, Asia may face the most acute problems because of the rapid pace of its economic growth and massive urbanization.

Sustainability, we heard, encompasses social, economic, and political issues against a backdrop of broader environmental and ecological concerns. It is based on the following ideas:

Consumption of non-renewable resources should not exceed the rate of development of sustainable alternatives

Consumption of renewable resources should not exceed the rate of regeneration

Emission of pollutants should not exceed the capacity of the environment to absorb them.

As the world’s population soars past six billion (a projected eight billion by 2020) and per capita use of all resources increases with increasing standards of living, the statistics point convincingly to a need for moderation and action. Unfortunately, facts about the state of the world’s resources are not widely known. Recent analysis, for example, estimates that 1.6 billion people in the world today do not have access to adequate safe water.

The conference profited from the visionary remarks of luncheon speaker Maurice Strong of Canada. Strong stated dramatically that engineers hold a front and centre position in all development initiatives. We have the knowledge and capability to see the trends, but we are not visible in the right forum. We are not “at the table.” We are “politically inactive.”

He exhorted participants to support local Agenda 21 activities. Agenda 21 was adopted by the United Nations at the Rio Conference in 1992. It is intended as a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by governments, business and other organizations that have an impact on the environnment.

Strong urged us to define a related Agenda 21 for ourselves. “Get involved in education and training and in shaping policies,” he urged. “The security of our civilizations may be at stake.”

Strong went on to say that engineers have a wealth of opportunities to make things less wasteful and to invent new approaches to improving the quality of life.

The larger question might be whether our present model for such an economy can lead to sustainability through regular market-driven mechanisms, or whether there will be a need for crisis-driven government interventions.

The most universal problem may be clean water. Canadians have recently had a taste of the preciousness of this resource. Another sobering problem is the worldwide effect of climate change. Last year, natural disasters created more refugees than wars and conflict combined. Some 30 million people were displaced from their homes.

The challenges of urban densification are equally mind-boggling and call for imaginative engineering solutions. To be workable, these strategies will have to consider political, economic, and social factors. There are no handbooks for developing solutions.

The FIDIC conference also included the usual debates and seminars on more direct practice-related issues affecting consulting engineering. Some of the difficult subjects now on the table include developing the administrative, legislative and technical support to allow developing nations to make effective use of their available resources, to deal with corruption, and cope with the increasing worldwide shortage of engineers, with talented graduates freely migrating to the best remunerated geographic areas.

FIDIC 2000 was an excellent conference, held at a location that illustrated some of the best beauty the planet has to offer. Ironically that beauty may be short-lived, should we not heed the facts presented.CCE

Ben Novak, P.Eng., is senior vice president of Stantec, based in Edmonton.


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