Water wizard

Ian Smout of the Water Engineering and Development Centre has directed his engineering skills towards improving the lives of people in developing countries through sustainable infrastructure projects.

Ian Smout has not yet had the call from Iraq, but these are early days and the reconstruction of that battered nation has barely started.

If the call comes it will be no surprise, because helping to rebuild nations on their knees due to war, famine or just straightforward grinding poverty is the stock in trade of Smout and his colleagues at the Water Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), part of Loughborough University’s Institute of Development Engineering.

The WEDC has already been active in Afghanistan, providing advice on the development of its water and sanitation systems, kickstarting the country’s long, slow journey from a ruined infrastructure to something its people can rely on.

Smout has wanted to help meet this type of challenges for a long time, since he realised that engineering expertise really could make a practical difference, even under the most difficult conditions.

‘I decided at university that I wanted to use my engineering skills to help international development. At the time I was quite unsure about how to do it, but it hasn’t worked out too badly.’

Not too badly at all, in fact.

As director of the WEDC, Smout is responsible for a world-renowned team of 40 engineering specialists from a range of disciplines who are helping some of the planet’s most disadvantaged nations.

The Loughborough facility is acknowledged as a leader in its field, and is often called upon by major international bodies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. Among other accolades, it has received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its ‘outstanding support for developing countries’.

According to Smout, the WEDC is all about ‘helping people to help themselves’. The centre has become a global repository of information on the right way to carry out vital engineering infrastructure projects. In the context of the developing world, the ‘right way’ is something of a moving target, because the needs of every country, region and group of people may be different.

But the WEDC aims to help engineers meet a range of criteria that, whatever the circumstances, tend to be of overriding importance to projects in the developing world. They need to be affordable to local agencies that are often desperately hard-up. They must meet the real needs of people on the ground, rather than what the authorities believe people need. And, most of all, they need to be sustainable – a word sometimes overused in development circles but which, according to Smout, simply means getting the right systems in place.

‘We have always had an emphasis on what used to be called appropriate technology. Now it would probably be called sustainability,’ said Smout.

The WEDC owes its existence to the now largely forgotten but devastatingly ferocious Biafra conflict in Nigeria in 1971. Loughborough’s then vice-chancellor visited the country and decided that the university could assist in the country’s reconstruction by restoring to working condition scientific laboratories damaged during the fighting.

Originally focused on water and sanitation engineering, the WEDC now offers assistance across some of the key components of a nation’s infrastructure – roads and transport are a notable example – and deals with refugees’ basic needs. The company works with what are technically known as ‘low and middle-income countries’. In practice this means some of the most deprived places on earth, where the basic services we take for granted are either not available or are patchy at best.

After almost three decades spent working in international development engineering, Smout has had many opportunities to see at first hand the impact engineering know-how can have on a desperate situation. He is also acutely aware that such work often takes place in a political, economic and social context every bit as ramshackle as the physical infrastructure his organisation is trying to improve.

The WEDC’s role is not necessarily to do the work itself, but to equip the relevant local providers with the skills they need to do the job. This has made him, by necessity, something of a diplomat who occasionally has to offer some unpalatable home truths. ‘Sometimes you will be looking at a piece of work that someone has struggled with under extremely difficult conditions, but it may not have worked out as it should have done,’ said Smout. ‘It’s a bit tricky, but you cannot gloss over the situation.’

Smout has also seen huge upheavals – some good, some bad – in the countries where the WEDC carries out its work, none more so than in South Africa. Every year the WEDC holds a conference to bring together hundreds of the world’s leading figures from the development engineering community. Taking the event to South Africa for the first time following the end of apartheid was a momentous event for Smout personally.

‘Because of the political situation, for years I never believed we would be able to hold the conference in South Africa,’ he said. ‘When I found myself at the front of the hall singing the country’s national anthem it was quite a moving experience. It’s easy to forget how much South Africa has changed.’

The WEDC is a self-funding group, hiring out its services to governments and international agencies and ploughing any surplus cash back in to fund its expansion.

According to Smout, this not only insulates the centre from the capricious nature of the mainstream university direct funding structure but provides a powerful incentive to succeed. ‘The more work we do the more money we’ve got to employ more staff.’ With his steadily expanding team and range of activities, Smout has plenty on his plate, and clearly would not have it any other way. Every addition to the WEDC’s pool of expertise, every set of best-practice guidelines drawn up and every problem solved on the ground will help to make somebody’s life just a little bit better.

However, Smout has seen enough of the developing world’s problems to know that there is only so much difference he and his colleagues can make. ‘A team of 40 seems like a big organisation to manage,’ he said. ‘But in terms of solving the world’s problems it’s nothing. What we don’t lack is motivation – that is never a problem here.’

For the record:

Ian Smout studied engineering at Clare College, Cambridge, and Reading University, and has since spent 26 years working in international development engineering. After 13 years at a consultancy firm, he joined Loughborough University’s department of civil and building engineering as a lecturer.

In 2000 Smout became acting director of the Water Engineering and Development Centre at the university’s Institute of Development Engineering, and was appointed permanently to the post last year. He is also an associate director of WELL, an organisation that provides resources on water, sanitation and environmental health issues for the government’s Department for International Development.