Session I: Engineering and Special Vulnerabilities
The focus of Session I was summed up in the following statement:
Engineers and engineering organizations operate in circumstances of crisis, ranging from conflict to disaster. They operate where human rights problems are highly visible and where issues of sustainable community development arise. This session reports perceptions about the technical and social constraints and opportunities they face and whether and how aims for humanitarian action, social justice, and sustainable community development can be met.
This session, which was moderated by National Academy of Engineering (NAE) member Henry J. Hatch, former Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, included three presentations and two responses. The first talk was given by Abul Barkat, Department of Economics, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Abul Hussam, Department of Chemistry, George Mason University, and winner of the NAE Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability. The subject was the human rights challenge of providing arsenic-free drinking water in Bangladesh. In the second talk, Christopher Seremet, Technical Advisor, Water Supply and Sanitation, Catholic Relief Services, described challenges facing engineers operating in crisis conditions, particularly if they are not familiar with the political and social context of the project. Finally, Anu Ramaswami, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Colorado, Denver, discussed challenges to addressing chronic problems in ways that ensure sustainable community development. Discussants were NAE Foreign Secretary George Bugliarello, president emeritus and university professor, Polytechnic Institute of New York University; and Deborah Goodings, professor, Engineering and Public Policy, University of Maryland, College Park.
REMOVING ARSENIC FROM DRINKING WATER IN BANGLADESH
In the opening presentation, doctors Abul Barkat and Abul Hussam described the stark human rights and public health situation in Bangladesh. Official estimates indicate that 50 percent of the population of some 150 million is at some risk of arsenic poisoning from groundwater (used for drinking) from tube wells. Thirty-five percent have no access to arsenic-free drinking water and thus cannot avoid this risk. In this dire situation, poorer households are at significantly higher risk, and arsenicosis (a disease caused by arsenic poisoning) leads to even deeper poverty and more social stigma.
Dr. Hussam explained how the SONO filter, which he developed, addresses these issues. There were significant difficulties—financial, technical, and social—in introducing a system such as the filters. Providing six million filters to the poor would cost U.S. $300 million, or 10 percent of the annual public improvements development budget of Bangladesh. In addition, the production, distribution, and necessary follow-up on the use of filters pose unprecedented management challenges for the country. Social issues include: lack of awareness among social gatekeepers, such as influential media outlets and employers; widely held myths and misconceptions among the populace; and a lack of commitment by the government.
Nevertheless, both speakers agreed that there are opportunities for improving management capacity, developing local solutions, and providing public education about safe drinking water. Field tests have demonstrated the viability of an integrated arsenic-mitigation program that includes external development partners; the government of Bangladesh; electronic media; civil society; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); and schools that recognize and accept the imperative of producing, deploying, and using SONO filters to increase access to safe water and thus improve public health and nutrition.
ENGINEERING PROJECTS IN INTERNATIONAL EMERGENCIES
Christopher Seremet, technical advisor, Water Supply and Sanitation, Catholic Relief Services, focused his remarks on the constraints
facing engineers working in international emergencies, which require an immediate response, to either mitigate or prevent catastrophe. Some emergencies, such as earthquakes and industrial accidents, have a very quick onset. Others, such as droughts, develop over a period of time. In either case, however, an intolerable situation demands an emergency response.
“[I]nternational emergencies often involve life or death situations and this can be… over-whelming for a young engineer. … Information comes in slowly, critical decisions have to be made immediately…. You’re out of your zone from a traditional engineering standpoint….”
Christopher Seremet, Catholic Relief Services
In emergency situations, constraints over human rights and social justice affect technological decisions, he said, and engineers must be prepared to operate beyond their normal comfort zone. They will be forced to deal with situations for which traditional educational programs have not prepared them, he said, and they must put aside deliberate, thorough processes of data collection, analysis, and planning and identify problems and formulate solutions quickly, often during the initial visit to the site. These constraints raise substantial concerns, he said, particularly for inexperienced engineers.
Decisions made under these circumstances, which can have life-or-death implications, may have to be based on inadequate information, rapidly changing conditions, and a very slow rebuilding process. Such situations call for empathy and other “people skills” as much as, or perhaps even more than, engineering skills. It might even be difficult to identify an effective engineering solution. War or civil conflicts, which arouse anger, suspicion, and distrust, pose additional challenges. There may also be issues of corruption and misuse (stolen equipment or money; bribery), and, in some cases, emergency response personnel have even been subject to violence.
On a more personal level, engineers must consider the potentially high costs to themselves of undertaking an emergency relief assignment—in terms of prior commitments, long-term career goals, and other factors.
ADDRESSING THE SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGE
In her talk, Anu Ramaswami, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Colorado, Denver, laid out some broad-based principles for learning to address the challenge of sustainability in responding to chronic, rather than emergency, problems. One principle for addressing the issues raised in this workshop is: “Develop and apply engineering solutions, while being cognizant of local geography, aspirations, and cultures.” Dr. Ramaswami focused on “how to do that, how to do it as an outsider, and how to teach engineers and engineering students to be able to do it.”
She recommended that three questions be asked when this kind of project is undertaken: Who owns the project or sets the agenda? Whose knowledge counts in the design? Who benefits? As she explained, project selection may be under the control of particular stakeholders, even though others may have claims that are just as strong, or even stronger. The answer to the question of who owns the project or sets the agenda will, of course, affect the answers to the next two questions.
In answering the second and third questions, she reminded listeners, unless local knowledge is taken into account, the outcome is not likely to be sustainable. Even if a project has an appropriate goal, one may look back and find that the intended beneficiaries had not been served.
She concluded by noting that what is needed in engineering education is an integration of expertise and techniques from the social sciences so that engineering projects are better defined. Specifically, engineering can take from the social sciences the understanding of community-based, participatory research. Planners must ask the important questions, “Who is the project for? Whose knowledge counts? Who takes part in … problem definition, data collection, interpretation, and analysis? Who takes action? Who owns the project? And how are the results assimilated?”
The panel then identified issues for discussion based on the presentations. George Bugliarello, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, pointed out that all three presentations had shown that the problems facing engineers are as much social as technical. The situation in Bangladesh demonstrated first how poverty creates disease and social
stigma, which, in turn, increase poverty, and second that scientific and technological solutions to problems require an organizational response to succeed. The second talk, on engineering in a crisis, he said, posed challenges to engineering education, such as how we can prepare students to act in crisis situations where quick decisions are necessary. The talk on addressing chronic, long-standing challenges showed the importance of honoring general principles to ensure that relevant social groups are included in setting the agenda.
Deborah Goodings, University of Maryland, focused her remarks on the desire of engineers and engineering students to be doing, and not just talking. Given the difficulties the speakers had identified, she asked for their recommendations for promoting the effective involvement of engineers and engineering students in local community and international development projects and for broadening engineering education to address the complex problems these projects and circumstances raise.
In the general discussion that followed, attendees identified a number of important issues. Richard Anderson of SOMAT Engineering, Inc., pointed out that planners should take into consideration what the “added value” is, and for whom, when engineering students from the United States or other developed countries undertake projects in developing countries. Legitimizing these efforts requires measuring positive results—for student participants and for the community. Rebekah Green, Western Washington University, said that measuring positive results must also include what happens in the future. Are engineering solutions sustainable in the long term?
NAE member Alice Agogino, University of California at Berkeley, noted that the deep tube wells in Bangladesh, which had been dug to provide abundant drinking water to large numbers of people, had unexpectedly caused the arsenic problem, demonstrating the need for whole systems analysis in deciding whether to implement an engineering solution to a problem. Systems analysis, she said, can help engineers avoid, or at least minimize, negative consequences from their interventions. In response, Dr. Barkat pointed out the difficulty of isolating a single source for the problem of arsenic in the water. He emphasized the need for better systems-oriented education to enable engineers to at least recognize, if not address, the complexities of such problems.
David Crocker, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, Uni-
versity of Maryland, College Park, noted that engineers must wrestle with underlying ethical questions, such as who should own a project, whose knowledge should count, and who should benefit. For example, if a solution will benefit males but not females, how should an outsider proceed? What are the responsibilities of each party? In response, Anu Ramaswami explained that NGOs are developing codes of ethics that might help answer questions about responsibility. She suggested that end-point assessments include community development as well as technical criteria.
Moderator Hatch ended the session by repeating that engineering in context requires attention to a great many factors: “technical, environmental, social, political, cultural, ethical, and you could probably add a whole bunch of others.” Unless all of these factors are taken into account, engineering efforts will fail, he said. He then asked that academics help practicing engineers to succeed. He pointed out how few practicing engineers had attended this meeting and recommended that greater efforts be made to engage them in these kinds of discussions.