Engineers can solve the water crisis, say webinar speakers

22 Jul 2021

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FIDIC launched its third State of the World report, Tackling the global water crisis, at a webinar on 22 July 2021, which called on stakeholders worldwide to build on current innovative approaches to addressing water challenges being implemented around the globe and rethink how these can be improved to meet the UN sustainable development goals and build a better world.

The webinar, attended by around 200 global construction and infrastructure professionals, was chaired by FIDIC chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin and was introduced by FIDIC president Bill Howard. Speakers at the event included Peter Macy, president of Rockblue, Babak Banijamali, deputy managing director of Darya-Bandar Consulting Engineers, Stuart Orr, freshwater practice leader at WWF International, Eoin Cullinane, senior project engineer at Nicholas O’Dwyer, Natalie Muir, general manager for water and environment at Cardno and Graham Pontin, head of economic and strategic policy at FIDIC.

Opening the webinar, FIDIC president Bill Howard said: “The challenges associated with the water challenge and climate change will be with us for years to come and new generations will need to address them going forward. Innovation will have a key role to play in dealing with the water challenge and our report illustrates a number of those taking place around the world, including how water systems are being shaped, thanks to the ingenuity of engineers and other construction professionals, to address the challenge.”

Introducing the report, FIDIC’s head of economic and strategic policy Graham Pontin said: “The report’s three recommendations of Respect, Renew and Rethink, are focused on engaging the industry, stakeholders and governments. We also highlight various projects that are demonstrating progress around the globe at the present time to share best practice and innovations. It’s important to stress that technology and practices will still continue to evolve, but we believe it is important to share information to learn from those current best practices.”

Peter Macy, president of global non-profit Rockblue, said that much more needed to be done to achieve the UN sustainable development goal around provision of safe water. “We are not where we need to be and we need to put more effort into that,” he said. Macy said that the hard part of water distribution was good management, capacity building and developing durable solutions. “Capacity building and effective governance are key and we need to direct resources to those areas as this will in turn solve some of the other issues related to water,” he said. Macy also highlighted the importance of community engagement in ensuring that water systems are truly community systems. It was important to get buy-in from users, otherwise infrastructure that had been implemented will not be used, or worse be degraded.

Babak Banijamali, deputy managing director of Darya-Bandar Consulting Engineers, reflected on adaptation and resilience being a key focus for water systems and solutions. Integrating changes in climate into systems design, asset management and investment was important, but the progress was “lagging behind” in meeting the sustainable development goals. “We need a better plan of action in this area,” Banijamali said and stressed that the problem needed to be approached from multiple levels and by various means.

Stuart Orr, freshwater practice leader at World Wildlife Fund International, said it was important to remind people that water “doesn’t just come from a tap, it depends on systems and infrastructure” to meet people’s needs. Orr also highlighted the importance of the impact of water on the ecosystem for species and the need for nature-based solutions to be built into future projects. He also spoke about the key role of community consultation in order to gain public support and acceptance for development. Nature-based solutions could be made attractive for investors, especially against a background of net zero priorities, he said. “It is a really good investment to develop nature-based solutions and the business case is becoming clearer every day,” said Orr.

Orr also said that the awareness of the finance sector had been raised around risk issues in relation to water and different kinds of finance was coming into the mix. “I am very encouraged by what we are seeing in this area from the financial sector, however, more needs to be done with the insurance and reinsurance sector to raise understanding of the issues and improve incentives to promote investment,” he said.

Eoin Cullinane, senior project engineer at Nicholas O’Dwyer and a member of the FIDIC Future Leaders group, said that water was a key issue area for bringing younger people into the industry. “Young people are naturally drawn to critical issues that are in the news and topical. We need to keep the importance of water and the infrastructure developments that supports it in the headlines to maintain its profile in the media and amongst opinion formers.” Cullinane made the point that getting involved in water infrastructure projects has real benefits to society and that point needed to be highlighted in order to encourage more young people to make a career in the industry.

Natalie Muir, general manager for water and environment at Cardno, said that water was “the heart of people’s livelihoods and a crucial resource for society”. She said that recent events (flooding and droughts) had demonstrated the extent to which climate change may already be causing significant impacts and she thought that more needed to be done to address them. “If we had spent as much time and effort on addressing sustainability issues as we have done on tackling the global pandemic then we would be in a much better place on the SDGs,” Muir said. “We also need to talk about sustainable solutions and not just sustainable infrastructure,” she said.

A key part of the discussion was the role of the engineering and construction community in delivering change on water and sustainability issues. “We need to ensure that engineers are in the room when key decisions are made,” said Natalie Muir. “FIDIC has a very loud voice and the more we use it the greater difference we can make with governments, stakeholders and within our own industry,” she said. “Engineers can solve the water crisis – we just need the time and opportunity to do it,” said Muir.

Summing up the event, FIDIC president Bill Howard said that the inspiring webinar speakers had made him confident about the future. “We need to constantly look for opportunities to speak to those outside our sector to raise our profile and make more people aware of the difference we can make in solving the global water challenge,” he said.

Click here to download the report, Tackling the global water crisis.

Click below to view the webinar recording for the launch of FIDIC's third State of the World report, Tackling the global water crisis

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