The Engineering Council of South Africa (Ecsa) on Tuesday held a workshop discussing the national infrastructure crisis, which would inform the proceedings and the launch of the National Engineering Task Force (NETF), to take place on Thursday.

The NETF would contribute to the development of a national engineering plan, which would focus on various infrastructural sectors, such as electricity, water and sanitation, sewerage, roads, telecommunications, as well as considering the effects of global warming on infrastructure, and very importantly, the skills crisis.

The need for an ‘action committee’, rather than just another forum to identify issues and challenges was noted, and the need for multidisciplinary, multiparty working groups to inform and advise government departments was highlighted.

A delegate at the workshop indicated that much of the decision-making, strategies and appointments made by leaders were “well intentioned, but ill informed”, and that Ecsa had the ability to better inform decision makers.

“Ecsa wants to add value and assist South Africa in this crisis situation. The council seeks to be relevant in the country, as it has the expertise in its ranks to align with government strategies and make a meaningful contribution,” Ecsa CEO professor Ravi Nayagar said at the workshop in Johannesburg.

The challenge regarding skills was emphasised, as well as the need to revitalise and change the mindset of traditional tertiary institutions and educators – to embrace training engineers to work in a more resource strained environment, and design and construct infrastructure taking life-cycle operation costs and technicalities into account.

‘CRISIS’ SECTORS

The shortage of skills has been particularly harshly felt by the electricity industry in South Africa, as well as the water and sanitation industry. These were two basic needs, which went hand in hand, because without water, Eskom could not generate electricity, and without electricity from Eskom, municipalities and water service companies could not treat and process, or pump water.

Eskom Corporate Services MD Dr Steve Lennon reiterated that the firm would need to bring new skills on board to support its new-build programme. The utility’s skills requirement was increasing significantly as it moved into an expansion phase, after a surplus capacity period in the 1980s.

Lennon indicated that the company’s staff turnover had increased slightly to about 6,9%, which was up from just under 5% in 2005. Although this did not make the company uncomfortable, the increase indicated that the situation would need to be managed. However, the turnover of engineers within the corporation was higher than the average, at about 9,3%, and over the last year, Eskom experienced a net loss of engineers.

Eskom did, however, have definite plans to populate its ranks through its learner pipeline, and presently Eskom has 1 265 bursars at tertiary institutions.

Of those bursars, 286 are non-engineering students, while 979 are engineering bursars at universities. The engineering students are further split into those studying electrical engineering numbering 441, mechanical engineering students numbering 312, a total of 67 civil engineering bursars, and 159 other engineering specialisations.

Lennon stated that Eskom would produce engineers for its needs, but this would not satisfy the needs of the country, particularly at the municipal level of electrical distribution, where engineering skills were sorely needed.

“We need to ‘over-train’ artisans and engineers, because they get poached from overseas. We need to look at the education sector and ensure educators are getting decent salaries, as well as make sure we are retaining skills,” Lennon added.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Dwaf) water services planning and information director Fred van Zyl highlighted a number of problems facing the water and sanitation sector.

Despite the water scarcity in South Africa, the maintenance and operation of water treatment facilities, particularly at a municipal level was emphasised as a major challenge. The operational maintenance of existing infrastructure required skilled people, and the skilled resources needed to effectively manage assets, and be accountable for the running of equipment.

Some municipalities were described as being in a chaotic state with regard to sewerage and effluent management – and adequate operators at these plants were in serious demand.

CROSS-CUTTING EFFECTS

Electricity and water were largely seen as far-reaching services, which, if in crisis, negatively affected a number of other sectors and constrained development therein.

Agriculture was one of these sectors, because much of the agricultural produce in South Africa is irrigated, water scarcity, and lack of electricity to pump the water, resulted in lower food production.

Housing was another sector that was starting to feel the pinch, as key inputs into housing delivery, such as water and electricity were being called into question.

“Delivery of housing is becoming increasingly difficult,” stated Department of Housing (DoH) Ministerial adviser professor Dan Smit.

He added that the delivery of housing through the DoH at provincial and local level was currently taking place at a rate of about 200 000 houses a year. The ambition was to double this rate by 2014, and produce some 400 000 houses a year.

The private sector was also making a contribution of about 40 000 homes a year, and was currently peaking at the provision of about 60 000 new homes a year – although largely in the more upmarket sector.

It was becoming apparent that many new housing developments were not getting approvals from the provincial authorities, as the ability to get essential services, particularly electricity, to new homes, was not possible.