• Drew Wilson

IN THE WORDS OF ENGINEERS - PART 2 of 2: Sustainability in a developing country

Updated: May 31, 2021

I’m a true advocate of the sustainability role imposed on engineers. As the mediator between all stakeholders in the project, civil engineers have a responsibility to consider the social, environmental and economic impact of their projects and how sustainable their approach is. This week’s blog is the second in a two-part sustainability series. We uncover how the sustainability needs of a developed country differ from those of an undeveloped country…

Sustainability is broad; its definitions and applications are infinite. The more I read on the topic, the more variations I see of good intentions to reduce harm socially, environmentally and economically.

In the built environment, however, I believe sustainability is also about legacy. It’s meeting our present-day needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Even a definition as concise as this is open to interpretation in different contexts by people with varying agendas, depending on their immediate needs. After all, what constitutes a ‘need’?

Contextualising needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good starting point when considering how the needs of people may vary. Our self-fulfillment needs can never properly be realised until our psychological and basic needs are met. The true needs of individuals differ according to their unique circumstances, level of wealth and living conditions.

Without food, water, warmth and security (our basic needs), we can’t pursue creative exploits to achieve our full potential (our self-fulfillment needs). We can’t build a society committed to progress. We can’t see beyond looking after ourselves or our own welfare; let alone consider how our actions may impact the quality of life for future generations.

Sustainable development goals

The United Nations has set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals for global progress. If you look at these goals by comparing what they may mean in a developed country, as opposed to an undeveloped country; you quite quickly how see needs differ drastically within each context.

17 Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations.
17 Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations.

Poverty, hunger, healthcare, clean water and sanitation, employment, energy and reduced inequalities are all major concerns and needs of undeveloped countries. Yet, in general terms, these are a reality for the majority population of developed countries. Developed countries can focus on the other goals more - innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and protecting the planet, for example.

South Africa’s unique position

South Africa is diverse in every way. We talk about cultural diversity all the time but we’re also diverse in our development. For the most part, our cities and urban areas have incredible infrastructure (although maintenance remains a challenge) and offer an excellent standard of living for those with wealth. On the other hand, our rural areas are among the most impoverished.

So how do we address the needs of both? This is what fellow engineers and built environment professionals suggested in the course of my master’s thesis research:

“Most developed countries have established an advanced infrastructure, so their focus is on tweaking or adapting current practices to suit global demands. Developing countries have the opportunity to plan a more sustainable future given the learnings of past practices; it is critical for developed countries to pass on those learnings.”

“A developed country may find improvements in basic service delivery less critical than developing countries […] First world countries view issues like renewable energy sources and reduction in carbon emissions as important, while developing countries should focus on skills development and infrastructure.”

“Developing countries don't emphasize the preservation of the environment for ecological posterity, but rather so that resources can be exploited later for economic and infrastructural development. Sustainable needs for developing countries centre less on the actual need to protect natural assets and more on the need to develop infrastructure and other social services.

Social impact

Personally I feel that undeveloped and developing countries should have a greater focus on the social aspects of sustainability; these directly relate to the basic needs of the majority population. Social sustainability considerations shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially in large-scale projects. Civil engineering design must consider the context and the community at the very heart of the project itself; this is the only way to ensure a sustainable legacy.

Social sustainability requires us to leave behind the pure aesthetic quality of a building. Human lives matter. We need to consider how many lives will be touched by our actions during construction and beyond, including the health, welfare and economic position of the communities we serve.


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