Thursday, August 09, 2007

US/UK crumbling infrastructure and lessons for Africa

The recent crumbling of a bridge over the great Mississippi in the United States killing a few people was another of many recent warnings about the fraying edges of the incredible edifices that has been the backbone of the US phenomenal economic and social success. The bursting pipes in Manhattan, the flooding Levees in New Orleans, the crumbling dams across the land and the America society of civil engineers says this is only the tip of the iceberg. In the UK the recent floods and the profound effect on the counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire amongst a few others reflects how any shift in the weather exposes the decay in the infrastructure. Trains with leaves on the line in autumn, the airport in constant state of chaos and flights grounded, the roads in permanent traffic backups even the tube over-congested and overheating. Any time it snows the country grinds to a halt. We are now used to irregular or even regular burst of electricity black out. We have reached this position because the incredible engineering fits of the past such as Brunel's have been taken for granted for far too long.

In Africa many will say we do not mind even if it is crumbling give us any infrastructure. If the west is in this state with its well established culture of maintenance what is going to happen in our beloved continent with even our limited infrastructure. All you have to look at is how we treat either our cultural heritage from the ruins of ancient Zimbabwe, Old Oyo, Sungbo Eredo amongst many others to even the family houses where many of us grew up. We are so interested in new and shiny things that we watch many run down without any backward glance. I wonder when was the last maintenance check done on the 3rd Mainland bridge in Lagos or any other similar engineering structure. I remember the wonder of seeing the very old Chryslers and Cadillacs in Havana looking crisp and roadworthy. They have become icons for the city and part of its unique selling point. Even though this is a product of the blockade and driven by necessity it still reveals a culture of maintenance. In Lagos the newer the better. The worry is what happens in Lekki when the next generation moves to building newer, bigger and plusher mansions rejecting the dated carbuncles with their Greco- Roman pillars? Is Lekki not going to become the worlds most expensive Ghetto ? Does anyone remember what happened to the middle class houses in Surulere?

There is a need to develop low tech infrastructure that is easier to replace and evolve that are built with locally renewable components. We need to redefine consumption to include after care culture . Also education should focus on practical hands on skills that allows us to build a workforce capable and ready to engage in reviews and maintenance of our emerging infrastructure. Most importantly we need to move beyond aspiring for Western style sky scrappers and bridges to redefining our focus towards a more sustainable approach to our requirements. For example take the power problem in Nigeria which is also becoming a crisis in South Africa, rather than just building additional central capacity and talking about Nuclear power why not divide each local government into small networks and provide support for developing a mix of energy solutions which can then be pulled together into larger aggregation. Supporting larger generators per street with a public, private and civic partnership. Using wind and solar generators to supplement where possible. It will increase accountability, improve cooperation and has built in sustainability. The alternative is a range of large prestige projects that like the refineries will not deliver. It is time to break out of all our boxes.

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