Georgina Crouth. Via Twitter
JOHANNESBURG - Hundreds of engineers leave South Africa each year, emigrating to countries which cherish their skills, or to gain experience on projects internationally.

Caro-Joy Barendse is part of the latter group of global professionals and is based at the Woodmead, Joburg offices of Netherlands Airport Consultants (Naco), a Royal HaskoningDHV subsidiary.

“We do work mainly for airport companies and airlines,” she explains. “I’m currently working on the designs of a third runway and associated taxiways for Kuwait International Airport, and a new runway for Dublin International Airport.

“Soon, I’ll commence work on further design work for the new greenfield Mexico City International Airport, as well as the development of a business strategy for the Upington Aviation Park.”

The Mexico City airport project is one of her most challenging projects to date, she says.

“I now have exposure to not only engineering design projects, but also business strategy and airport planning projects. I also get to work on an international scale, on projects based in different countries, and work with people from various countries and cultures, so my job is always interesting and challenging.”

Sinking feeling

With an estimated value of 11billion (R178bn) and a handling capacity of 50million passengers a year, it will be one of the world's largest airports on completion. 

Besides the scale of this project, there are many technical challenges: the site for the new Greenfield Airport is located on a dried-up lake, which has been described as “exactly the worst place to build”, while Mexico City, which is constructed on a network of lakes that formed in the centre of a volcano, is a sinking city.

Home to more than 21million people, the chaotic, parched and polluted city of sprawling development has sunk more than 10m over the past century. Most of the water its residents rely on is extracted ever-deeper from an aquifer beneath this city built on a precarious combination of clay and volcanic soil.

The sinkage problem has not only caused havoc with the foundations of statues and buildings, 15 schools have crumbled or caved in, a teenager was swallowed up by a gaping fissure in the street, and a father and son were killed when their car disappeared into a sinkhole on a highway in the city. Mexico City is disappearing into the Earth.

Barendse thrives on such challenges, saying: “These extremely poor soil conditions require a real feat of engineering innovation, especially because airports are of the heaviest structures and the dynamic loads exerted by aircraft movements is not easy to design for in itself.”

Working on international projects can be daunting, she admits. “Managing this project is particularly difficult as Naco is in partnership with a local engineering company. With the teams based in South Africa, the Netherlands and Mexico, managing across cultures and languages brings its own unique challenges.”

She stayed in the Mexican capital for six months this year, to co-ordinate between the design team in the Netherlands, South Africa and a local engineering company.

“I stumbled across many signs that the city is sinking: many statues have had new layers added to their foundations to compensate for the lower ground levels.

“With a population of around 21million people in Mexico City alone, one could only imagine the challenges in providing potable water as well as managing escalating pollution levels. The city has been forced to pump water from its aquifers and this exacerbates the rate at which the city is sinking.”

Barendse is unperturbed, saying selecting an appropriate site for an airport is often complicated.

“Planners will always try to maximise the connectivity between an airport and business nodes so travel times are minimised, allowing for greater efficiency and less interference with productive time.

“However, airports produce high amounts of noise and air pollution, as well as damage to the environment, hence the procedure to secure environmental sign-offs is a very strict and inclusive one.”

With Dutch innovation driving Naco, the engineers are adept at challenging designs.

“Dutch engineers are very familiar and proficient when it comes to dealing with an excess of water and the resultant poor soil conditions, making them the ideal candidates to be leading this design,” she says.

Anyone’s game

As chairperson of the SAICE Young Members, Barendse says civil engineering might not be the first career choice for many women, but she wanted to follow a career path that would give her a platform to make a positive impact on the quality of life for her fellow South Africans.

“As civil engineers, we have a natural inclination towards people in society. We are the natural candidates to make a difference - in all spheres of government, all institutions and in business.”

The current tender system, though, has made it difficult to compete against local small engineering consultancies so most of her work is overseas.

“This is sad for me because as much as I love the international exposure, I’d really like to be able to work on my own soil,” she says, noting that transport systems are a great enabler of economic growth.

“Of huge concern to SAICE and the Young Members is the brain-drain: in March this year, Stats SA predicted more than 112000 of the country’s best skills in education, science and engineering would emigrate in the next five years due to political instability, crime, employment and uncertainty, most between the ages of 25 and 29.”

Being a woman in a “man’s profession” can be tough, she admits, but things are changing.

“It was, and still is, a battle. The engineering profession has a long way to go before gender equality is achieved. But part of the battle is an internal one so I found that once I changed my mindset, my gender became less of a disadvantage to me.

“Women still have to work harder to gain respect from our male counterparts. The industry is changing slowly, but surely - SAICE boasts a membership of 1500, 40percent of whom are women, which is a positive sign that more and more females are entering and remaining in the profession.”

Barendse says when she left school there was a drive to encourage more young people to pursue a career in engineering but, after graduating from university, an increasing number are unable to find work because graduates don’t want to work in small municipalities.

“Our shortage of engineers within municipalities is significantly inhibiting our growth and ability to provide acceptable service delivery to communities. Without qualified and experienced engineers in key public sector planning and management positions, we will not be able to meet the needs of our growing population or the increased demands brought about by urbanisation.”

Engineering an era

The National Development Plan to reduce poverty has an ambitious infrastructure component for 2030, but this cannot be achieved without engineers, which was discussed during a talk on leadership by former finance minister Trevor Manuel at an SAICE Young Members event in Midrand on November 10.

Now the chairperson of Old Mutual, Manuel, who has a background in civil engineering and was one of the key drivers of the NDP, called for the creation of an “engineering era” in which innovation drives solutions to water and land shortages, and efficient, safe and thriving urban areas are built. For that to become a reality, engineers need to be at the forefront of development.

Barendse concluded: “Whether we have sufficient engineers in South Africa or not, we cannot achieve high economic growth and global competitiveness as long as there is insufficient capital allocated towards infrastructure and service delivery.”