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Poorly-maintained infrastructure threatens economic growth

Poorly-maintained infrastructure threatens economic growth [Image: www.marasinews.com]

“If there is one thing we can learn from the Eskom power crisis in South Africa, it is the vital importance of maintaining and fixing infrastructure in key sectors like energy, transportation and water,” says a UCT civil engineering professor.

South Africa’s energy crisis is costing the country billions of rands and while the embattled power utility’s woes are complex, poor maintenance and a lack of capacity planning are some of the key reasons for the country’s energy crisis. 

According to energy expert Chris Yelland, stage 1 load shedding (10 hours of blackouts per day for 20 days a month) costs the economy an estimated R20bn per month. 

“Eskom is at the coalface of public perception, but we are facing the same problems in other sectors, the same risks. We should be planning ahead, thinking about maintenance much earlier,” says University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor Pilate Moyo, incoming director of the Concrete Materials and Structural Integrity Research Unit (CoMSIRU) at UCT.

Moyo says there is a shortage of civil engineers with knowledge and experience in management and infrastructure maintenance both in the public and private sectors. He says this is one of the reasons CoMSIRU established the new master’s programme in Civil Infrastructure Management and Maintenance in 2013. 

“I was working with a South African parastatal a few years ago and it became very clear that there is a gap of knowledge and experience in infrastructure management and maintenance. The mostly young engineers were relying on consultants to do the work. With the right qualifications they could do the work and only call on consultants to deal with specialised work,” he says. 

The South African Auditor General Kimi Makwetu recently revealed that between 2008 and 2011, departments and state entities spent R102bn for consultants. And in his last report, Makwetu said government spent R30bn on consultants in 2012.

He says the master’s programme in Civil Infrastructure Management and Maintenance could change that and aims to train qualified civil engineers already in the workplace. The programme focuses not only on technical knowledge in civil engineering but on practical implementation as well, showing engineers how to develop infrastructure management systems, carry out inspections, identify infrastructure that require repairs, plan and implement repairs, as well as do long-term planning.

An entire module is dedicated to bridge maintenance and students are taken to various sites to inspect bridges. “They are taught how to identify problem areas and then have to come up with solutions to deal with the problems,” he says. 

And Moyo says many municipal and other structures across Southern Africa are deteriorating and needs urgent attention.

“Attending to these is more complicated than building new ones. It means you need someone who knows what is going on with existing structures, someone who can identify the problems and knows how to fix them.” He warns that the importance of maintaining infrastructure cannot be overestimated. It can cost industries millions of rands.

Moyo joined UCT in 2003 and together with Professor Mark Alexander and associate professor Hans Beushausen was instrumental in forming the (CoMSIRU,) which he will lead in 2016 when Alexander retires.  

The unit has grown substantially over the years, obtaining funding recently from Haw & Inglis and Aveng Grinaker-LTA, with 30 to 40 current full-time master’s and doctoral students. The unit has received strong financial and other support from The Concrete Institute, Transnet Freight Rail, The National Research Foundation (NRF,) Sika (SA) Pty Ltd., PPC Ltd, AfriSam, The Tertiary Education Support Programme (TESP) of ESKOM, The Water Research Commission (WRC,) Chryso SA, as well as UCT, and has consulted on projects as far afield as Zimbabwe, Uganda and Namibia.

Moyo is excited about the CoMSIRU’s growth and his growing responsibilities at UCT. 

“For me it is about developing people and growing human capital. We want to do good research that has a real world impact, but it is always about developing people,” he says. 

His vision for the future is clear, “We are fortunate here at UCT in that while we can’t claim to be Cambridge or Oxford, we have time, space and resources, even if they are limited and we have direct access to the challenges facing South Africa and the continent. We are in a unique position to contribute towards building and developing Africa into a continent of growth and hope through human capital development and this is what we will be focusing our efforts on in future.”

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