Lack of engineers spells dam failure

13 December 2015 - 02:00 By ANDRE JURGENS


Dams that store water for drinking, agriculture and industry are not being subjected to compulsory safety checks because of a dire shortage of qualified engineers in South Africa. The country is facing its worst water crisis in 25 years due to drought - a crisis amplified by the loss of water through crumbling municipal infrastructure.Dams used to store the scarce resource pose serious safety hazards to the towns and cities they supply when they are not properly maintained.Of the country's 5102 registered dams, 1464 are ranked as potentially hazardous due to factors such as their sheer size, known structural problems, noncompliance with safety standards or proneness to flooding.story_article_left1The structures are "policed" by the Dam Safety Office, falling under the Department of Water and Sanitation, which acknowledges in its latest annual report that only 58% of dams targeted for a safety evaluation in the 2014-15 financial year were actually inspected.The problem boiled down to a shortage of "approved professional persons" - qualified engineers with suitable experience. Only 92 of these engineers remain, and 66% are older than 60. "Not enough young professionals are being trained," warns the report, adding that it would "soon become a bottleneck for the effective implementation of the compulsory dam safety evaluations".South Africa witnessed the carnage and destruction of a dam failure on February 22 1994 in the Free State mining town of Virginia. The Merriespruit tailings dam collapsed, releasing a wall of water and sludge that crushed homes, killed 17 people and injured dozens more during heavy rainfall. The trail of devastation stretched for 2km.Hogsett Dam near Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape failed on February 24 2011, during heavy rains, killing at least one person, damaging homes and sweeping away cars, people and trees.South African Institution of Civil Engineering president Dr Chris Herold said an alarming exodus of senior engineers had cut to the "very head of the water sector, threatening paralysis of the body".Speaking at his inauguration last month, he said bursary students and graduate engineers had failed to fill the vacant posts, or had resigned due to poor pay, a dearth of mentors and an "engineer-unfriendly environment".story_article_right2Free State University water expert Dr Anthony Turton said the water sector was in the same predicament as Eskom had been in 2006, with poorly maintained infrastructure.He raised concerns about the ability of some dams to withstand the severe flooding that often followed an El Niño event, which is currently affecting South Africa.The Dam Safety Office report also warns that:• Most of the top 100 dams flagged as potentially hazardous belong to the Department of Water Affairs and municipalities;• Many dam owners are slow to comply with safety legislation due to "finances and apathy". Some have no emergency preparedness plan;• Only 58% of the 400 dams on the priority list complied with basic safety standards; and• Most dams on the register are in the Western Cape, with 1444, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 986 and the Eastern Cape with 761. Municipalities own 321 dams.

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