Why infrastructure is the bedrock of society

Natural disasters can destroy entire civilizations and climate change will only amplify their effects, says Paul Jowitt

From the crucible of the 19th century technological and economic powerhouse came much of the world as we see it today, with successive waves of technical innovation and periods of rapid social change. It simultaneously improved the health of a nation and the well-being of the common man – with improvements in water supply and sanitation and economic growth, and greater equality of opportunity and social mobility.

From that sprang today’s critical infrastructure – the transportation systems of canals, highways, railways and ports; the power systems; the water supply, sewerage and irrigation systems; the production and consumption of consumer goods on a massive scale; and the development of large-scale construction and the changing form of cities and towns.

But the risks of that infrastructure breaking down and the scale of the consequences are growing, due to random and non-random sources such as climate change, potential over-dependence on high-technology infrastructure, and increasing urbanisation – in both the developing and developed worlds.
The demand for effective infrastructure services is immense. And we know that when infrastructure fails, things simply go wrong. We saw it when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. A few simple civil structures – flood levees – failed. Eight hours later, the social cohesion of a city in the world’s richest and most advanced country was reduced to chaos. No electricity, no ATMs, no cash and therefore an inability to buy food or water.

We saw it with 2004’s tsunami in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, and again just recently in Samoa. We saw it with earthquakes in China, Pakistan, Italy and Indonesia. We also saw it in the UK with floods in south-west England, Yorkshire and Scotland. Water and electricity supplies were lost, as were homes and personal property. People camped in their drives to protect their shattered properties and remaining possessions.

All this shows we are often hours away from social collapse if critical infrastructure fails.

It is time for an engineering renaissance – to build and rebuild our infrastructure in a burgeoning world, in the face of terrorism, natural disasters and climate change. In the face of a globalised economy, in the fallout from the collapse of the financial systems upon which it was built and in the face of international competition for natural resources.

We are in a world where more than half of the population has no access to the infrastructure platform upon which civilisation and its survival depends. The greatest risks to humanity will be in lesser-developed countries and where the criticality of urban infrastructure – where it exists – will be even more fragile. In places where it doesn’t, the consequences will be even worse.

The effects of climate change – sea-level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, drought and flooding – will also impact most on the most impoverished people of the world. In practical terms, the climate-change debate is over. For climatologists, now is the time for them to monitor and refine their climate models – that is their job. For politicians heading for Copenhagen, now is the time to agree to significantly reduced CO2 emissions and start planning for a low-carbon future.

And now is the time for engineers to provide the solutions. Practitioners – planners, architects and engineers – and the engineering research community must work together with end users and stakeholders to build these sustainable environments. We have the imagination and we have the innovative solutions.

Paul Jowitt
President, Institute of Civil Engineers
Graduated from Imperial College
1974-87 Lecturer at Imperial College
1987 Lecturer at Heriot Watt University
1989-99 Head of Civil and Offshore Engineering at Heriot Watt
1997 Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
2002-08 Board Member of Scottish Water
2005 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh;
Present Professor of Civil Engineering Systems and Executive Director of the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology at Heriot Watt University; President of the ICE