5 things I learned as an engineer when I studied Integrated Water Management

A professional engineer discovers Integrated Water Management (but I had no idea what it was really).

I had spent nearly 8 years working as an engineer (mechanical if you must know) in the water sector – in construction, consulting, and for a water utility company by the time I decided that I needed to further my education and learn something new. By 2009 I’d gained enough experience to get my Engineering Chartership – an important feather in your cap if you want to approve engineering designs and mentor younger engineers.

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in water. I was also at that stage in my career where I could see a vast field of opportunities ahead of me and wanted to put myself ahead of the competition, even though I wasn’t entirely sure at that point whether I wanted to pursue promotion in a technical role, or move into management.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Like anyone else who grew up in the age of discount air fares and easy travel, the world was my oyster, so I started looking up courses in water management that I could do – from the United Kingdom, to the Netherlands, to North America, and Asia. I finally landed on the Master of Integrated Water Management, delivered of course, in Australia where I grew up. By this point I was living in London, with no immediate plans to move back to Australia. Luckily I was able to study by distance education. Online teaching technology was still relatively new and not without hiccups, but it worked. I tied the compulsory field trips in with visits to family, and worked full time, whilst studying part time over the next 3 years. It wasn’t easy.

What I learned during my studies in Integrated Water Resource Management

Coming from a background of hard-nosed contract managers and gruff construction engineers, the world of IWRM was totally different. In my cohort of students there were professionals from all sorts of backgrounds – educators, environmentalists, engineers, hydrogeologists, ecologists, lawyers, economists and more. It was truly humbling and educational just being around them. They came from all over the globe – Kenya, Zambia, USA, Canada, Chile, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Vanuatu and Australia to name just a few countries. This course wasn’t going to just be about the best methods for excavating rocky soil, the best process for treating sewage, the safest way to construct a building, or most cost effective way to deliver a project. No it was so much more, which I’ll cover in other posts going forward.

For me, the 5 stand-out lessons were:

1. Rivers truly are the lifeblood of a city.

Rivers have throughout history provided societies with the means to grow food, live comfortably, transport goods, and stay hygienic. Amazing cities have grown up around rivers over the centuries, and slowly we’ve cleared away the trees and vegetation lining the river banks that protect them from erosion, flooding and pollution. Now that we know the importance of rivers in creating livable cities, governments worldwide are undertaking riparian restoration projects to return rivers a more natural state.

I learned how this can be done.

2. There are economic and social costs of not managing our natural resources carefully or engaging with local stakeholders

In the short term, fighting over who has the right to build on a particular piece of land or extract from a particular part of the river costs projects time and money. In the long term, if a project hasn’t considered the impacts to the environment or to local communities of a new scheme, the costs to the environment or community in terms of economic productivity, ecological impact or collective happiness may outweigh the benefits provided by the scheme. This is neither good for the Client, community, nor the company delivering the scheme – potentially costing $20 million per week. It is easy for a company that is just following instructions of a Client to pass environmental assessment and community engagement off as the Client’s responsibility, when in reality everybody holds responsibility in a project’s decision-making processes.

We have a duty to identify both short and long term scheme costs and benefits, and properly risk assess with communities in mind.

3. Everyone has competing values – they’re not necessarily right or wrong, just different

I once asked a respected professor how we decide what the “right” decision is on a project. Take for example a mine that excavates a mineral that is used in everyday products that we can’t live without – the mine provides a service that people need, and contributes to the economy. It provides jobs for the employees of the mine and for the local community. Yet it leaves an irreversible impact on the environment, often quite detrimental, which can’t simply be offset by planting some trees elsewhere. This impact on the environment may also have its own economic impacts in the longer term, or perhaps impact the cultural traditions of indigenous communities.

Know that our actions have consequences, no matter how good the intention.

4. We are faced with Wicked Problems

The previous point brings us to Wicked Problems. The fact that the world’s natural resources are finite and our population is ever growing means that we are faced with complex social problems that often have no solution. A wicked problem may by dealt with using approaches to improve the situation for those affected, but since each problem is unique and dependent on context and perspective, there is no template for how one should approach them.

Learn to listen to Wicked Problems and don’t assume there is an easy answer.

5. We need to rethink how we define the success of a project

I’ve spent my career delivering and managing projects. A successful project is often defined by whether or not the Client’s Brief is met on time and under budget. In recent years another key metric used is Client feedback – is your Client happy with the way you delivered the project as well as the end result? Yet it’s not often that projects are monitored and evaluated over a longer time-frame – over the life of the installed asset, or over a generation of the affected communities.

We don’t budget for ongoing monitoring and evaluation. We tend not to measure less tangible benefits such as social impact, goodwill, compliance or customer satisfaction. That doesn’t mean they are any less important.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project 01 on Unsplash

Actually there’s a sixth lesson

I’m forgetting one last important thing that funnily enough I hadn’t appreciated until I was more deeply immersed in my coursework. It’s women. Women are a catalyst for social change in ways that have been invisible throughout history, and women will continue to be the driving force for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and for effecting social change going into the future.

As a mother to a young boy I wonder what the world will be like when my son is a grown man. I will teach him that he is important. I will teach him that there are still places in the world where he will still be told he is more important than his female counterparts, and that this is unlikely to be true. I will teach him that there are also adversities facing young men that we have yet to address properly. Yet he will know that women in the community undertake many invisible jobs – jobs that have not yet received the proper recognition in our society. Women also wield influence, and have some great ideas and inspiring energy for making their societies a better place to live.

We need to let women do what they do best, but also recognize and celebrate their achievements.

Sorry for the long post. I’m not quite sure how to end this, so I’m just going to leave this here:

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