In view of President Ramaphosa’s declaration of a National State of Disaster concerning COVID-19, the question arises as to what role engineering plays in alleviating the plight of those affected or who could be affected. 


Taking a step back, the engineers’ role is to provide all people in South Africa with adequate and appropriate infrastructure services in order to ensure quality of life to all. These services include the provision of quality water, sanitation, including wastewater, properly constructed housing, healthcare facilities such as hospitals and clinics, roads, rail, electricity, education, including schools, universities and TVET colleges, airports and ports. However, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card (IRC) for South Africa indicated that engineers were not able, since the first IRCs of 2006 and 2011, to

fulfill this role due to various factors, such as the lack of maintenance of necessary infrastructure as well as a lack of roll-out of service delivery infrastructure projects. 


A short explanation of the symbols is: A = World-class; B = Fit for the Future. 

C = Satisfactory for Now; D = At Risk of Failure, and E = Unfit for Purpose. 

Looking at the grades given in the 2017 IRC, it is evident that South Arica is in trouble. As far as water is concerned, bulk water provision received a D- with supply in major cities given a C+. Supply in all other areas got a D-. Solid waste collection in major urban areas has a C, with the metros getting a C+. However, the grading for waste disposal in other areas is D-. Sanitation in major urban areas received a C- but in all other areas an E, thus unfit for purpose. Whereas paved metropolitan roads received a C-, the provincial, metropolitan and municipal gravel roads received an E

Returning to the role of engineers in the current disaster situation regarding Covid19, they are needed wherever municipalities’ water and sanitation infrastructure are collapsing or already in a state of disrepair. ONLY engineers can repair these! The first precaution that is emphasised is that people need to wash their hands often. How can this happen if there are constant disruptions in water supply or even no supply at all?

The state of disaster should be carried through to the engineering sector to provide the necessary assistance wherever infrastructure delivery of services is required. There are many willing and very able and experienced professionally registered engineers waiting for this call.

Had an office of the Engineer-General been in place, as requested by society, young engineering practitioners and Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA), this process could have been simplified or possibly averted as action would have been taken timeously to address the current untenable situation of under-capacitation at most provincial and municipal spheres of government.

Working together the spread of the coronavirus could be mitigated in a sustainable manner. Collaboration between the relevant professions (not limited to engineering and medicine) is required to respond to the pandemic and to build adequate service delivery infrastructure to support and for our healthcare system. 

Stay informed and be prepared!

Authors: Yankho Banda, Marie Ashpole and Godfrey Ramalisa in association with @ChangingthingsSA


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