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Infrastructural Entropy (Jun 2010)

Posted By Chris Reay, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

I guess it would be futile to try and educate politicians about the concept of entropy because it is a scientific and engineering term that would immediately send them off on their next overseas trip to rather pursue some pointless and costly party interest. How else does one get the message across to them that unless they put some energy into the closed system called the county's infrastructure consisting of engineered assets, constructed facilities and orderly management, then the system will continue to lose any contained energy until it reaches equilibrium with nature's random "chaos”?

A disturbing recent commentary from the civil engineering profession contains a number of serious issues that illustrate the growing loss of skills and institutional energy from the infrastructure. Consider some of these:

SAFCEC (The SA Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors) says a large number of contract awards are being postponed by all tiers of government, while technical expertise is also lacking at government level to make the necessary decisions on project scopes and the awarding of tenders.

It is not that government does not have the money – it is that they are not spending it.

Overall, the tender adjudication postponement rate for the government sector on the whole, across all tiers, increased from 10% in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 23,2% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Where it should take around three months to award a tender, it can now take up to a frustrating six months, which means skills and capacity in the industry lie dormant.

This is not about government not having the money – it is about not having the capacity to make decisions.

A recent report on municipalities says the combination of poor payment and higher levels of postponement suggest either a funding or management issue, both implying capacity constraints. Evidence of this is the latest municipal financial report, ending December 2009, which shows a debtor analysis in excess of 70% at 90 days or more, across all municipal departments.

One infrastructure agency had access to R27-billion in credit, but used only R300-million.

Institutional decay is fast becoming a massive drag on delivery.

SAFCEC adds that there is too much political involvement in decisions that should be driven by business principles, especially at local municipalities and parastatals. Corruption in the awarding of tenders is also a cause of concern. In fact it is rampant.

We know that the civil engineering profession tends to be a leading indicator of the project spend pattern. How will this impact on the mechanical and electrical professions? When local skills capacity lies dormant it will seek work outside the country, and coupled with the general skills shortage across most sectors, even in the unlikely event that the politicians do understand the second law of thermodynamics, then they will find that the source of providing the required energy has left home. The Local Government SETA's own scare skills list shows "absolute scarcity” ranking in all disciplines of engineering. Yet when one develops a programme to assist in the relief of this skills need, bureaucracy, politics, finger trouble and plain stupidity reign supreme.

I would to know if the Planning Commission which has taken so long to get its own planning act together, if at all is actually aware of the impact of a declining infrastructure and what they plan to recommend. The evidence now becoming common knowledge is the number of municipalities where the residents are forming their own bodies to run the local authorities' affairs, and it now indicates the response to the growing service delivery protests as political spin achieves no solution. As institutional memory and capacity decline, the citizens will take over to maintain any sense of stability and control. This is a vital trend raised in the Dinokeng scenarios. The ANC may just realise in due course that this is not good for voter support, and entropy cannot be reversed by denial and inactivity.

In the end, engineering skills will be the essential midwife to help with the birth of a new dispensation for the reversal of the energy loss. It is really that which creates the built environment.

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