The Sustainable Rural Infrastructure Development Construction Essay

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The key challenges facing South Africa are poverty and unemployment, economic growth and human capital development. The civil engineering construction industry is central to improving the quality of life enabling growth and transformation.

The construction economy in South Africa will see sustained growth through growing investment, low inflation and low interest rates. However, the impact of growth has hardly hit rural South Africa. The country s large resource pools lie in the rural areas and should only be exploited in a sustainable manner that will see the growth and empowerment of rural communities into jobs and out of poverty. We must learn and not repeat the mistakes of colonial history. Growth must be sustainable, deliverable and empowering.

Development of rural infrastructure is a sustainable imperative that must retain the wealth where it belongs. This requires a fundamental change in the construction industry that has never really had much concern for the social, environmental and economic consequences of its exploitation. Future exploitation must not go unchallenged if we are to achieve sustainable growth.



The key challenges facing South Africa are poverty and unemployment, economic growth and human capital development. The civil engineering construction industry is central to improving the quality of life enabling growth and transformation.

The construction economy in South Africa will see sustained growth through growing investment, low inflation and low interest rates. However, the impact of growth has hardly hit rural South Africa. The country s large resource pools lie in the rural areas and should only be exploited in a sustainable manner that will see the growth and empowerment of rural communities into jobs and out of poverty. We must learn and not repeat the mistakes of colonial history. Growth must be sustainable, deliverable and empowering.

Development of rural infrastructure is a sustainable imperative that must retain the wealth where it belongs. This requires a fundamental change in the construction industry that has never really had much concern for the social, environmental and economic consequences of its exploitation. Future exploitation must not go unchallenged if we are to achieve sustainable growth.


Engineering, as we all know, is of enormous importance to modern society. In varying degrees, virtually everything we make or use embraces some element of engineering and the skill of engineers. In design, development, construction and manufacture, indeed in all the amenities of modern life electricity supply, waste disposal, transport, and communications one finds the hand of the engineer. Engineering, in other words, is an integral part of modern society.

Engineering has its soul in change change created by the manipulation of science and technology. Throughout history, the face of the earth has been changed by two industries agriculture and construction the latter being the works of architects and civil engineers. In the present day South African context, changes in engineering reflect changes in other parts of the world.

A high quality of life is possible in large part because of a highly-developed infrastructure which consists of roads, railways, tunnels, bridges, communication systems, power plants and distribution networks, water treatment systems, and all of the structures and facilities that support daily life. The infrastructure is constructed and maintained by the construction industry. Without it, the country would not be able to function.

There is, however, an ever widening gap between the quality of life in the urban and rural communities. Attempts to redress this imbalance are generally aimed at some sort of redistribution of wealth from the relatively capital rich urban communities to alleviate the rural poverty. But these paternalistic handouts limit the freedom of the rural citizen by failing to recognize that the source of the capital wealth stems, directly or indirectly, from the resource rich rural areas. Hence, it is not redistribution of wealth that is needed, but an elimination of this insidious colonialism.


Colonialism: alleged policy of exploitation of backward or weak peopleThe previous colonial powers generated wealth by appropriating seemingly undeveloped and weak countries and importing their raw resources for an expanding manufacturing and industrial sector. With decolonization over the last century, the former colonies have been left to fend for themselves and translated the colonial model to their own rural areas. Ironically, the former colonies have thus grown from the exploitation of their rural resources in an unsustainable manner. In South Africa this manifested itself in the particularly insidious apartheid form of colonialism where people were classified as rural by virtue of the colour of their skin.

Since the demise of apartheid which saw the declassification of people, there has been a large drift of rural people to the fringes of urban communities but lack of job and empowerment opportunities means that they still remain part of the rural poor. This model cannot be sustained if we are to avoid the trap of classifying people as rural and urban. In order to achieve a uniform high quality of life for all, we must recognize that we already have a relatively uniform distribution of wealth throughout the country and ensure that all citizens benefit equitably. This requires the development and distribution of infrastructure that ensures that all parts of the country are equally attractive to live in.


Infrastructure: permanent installationsThere is a paucity of rural infrastructure in South Africa infrastructure to meet the needs of the rural community. What infrastructure there is has been designed to meet the requirements of the urban community roads and railways to supply the raw resources from the rural areas for urban industry, and transport from one urban area to another, water and electricity to metropolitan areas that can more easily show that infrastructure development will lead to increased productivity, and can therefore recover costs through user charges or future taxes. Rural infrastructure development is perceived to be more costly and that recovering these costs is fairly marginal, since they receive little income from their dispersed and generally poorer inhabitants.

Provision of infrastructure is based on affordability and the timing and ability to pay for the cost of programmes. Where the majority of local households are indigent, they are unlikely to be able to afford to contribute to user charges and levies let alone pay taxes. Lack of capital severely restricts the level of service, and hence this model condemns rural poverty to get relatively worse.

Although there has been considerable progress in the first 10 post-apartheid years, there are still considerable backlogs. The rural infrastructure deficit for water, sanitation, transport (roads), electricity, health (clinics) and education (classrooms) is summarized in the 2004 State of the Nation Address by President Thabo Mbeki.

Estimates in 1994 Progress by 2004

Housing 1.4 to 3 million units Houses built for the poor 1.6 million

Electricity 60% had no access 70% of households have been electrified

Clean water 16 million with no access Clean water 9 million people got access

Adequate sewerage 22 million people without access 63% of households now have sanitation

70% secondary school enrolment 85% enrolment by 2002

During this period there has been a significant increase in the population, and migration from rural areas. While it is difficult to develop an accurate provincial perspective, the overriding perception is that a high percentage of communities with the poorest access to infrastructure are in KwaZulu-Natal.

The construction industry creates and maintains the built environment that underpins all modern human endeavour, economic growth and social development.The construction industry is pivotal to the development of infrastructure, reaching into every South African community, facilitating the objectives of potable water, sewerage disposal, electrification, health, education, housing and productive employment. Not only the performance and capability, but also the sustainability of the industry is essential to the delivery of an equitable infrastructure that is inclusive of every corner of society providing transport and communication to facilitate the industrial and societal development for a growing economy that increasingly supports an integrated and economically-active population.

It is in the context of these challenges that Government has proclaimed the construction industry as a national asset to be developed, maintained and transformed and has given impetus to these aims through a range of policy, institutional and practical initiatives (CIDB 2004). A sustainable construction industry, however, is not the same as sustainable development.


The built environment is the reflection of a nation s developmental progress, as well as the physical foundation for economic and social advance in the future. It is the construction industry that creates and maintains this foundation in a process that must deliver value to clients and society.An efficient and effective construction industry that uses resources better, that reduces waste, and that transforms the working environment of its people for better employment and greater productivity are being advanced by many governments around the world. Practices that promote social and economic priorities, including improved safety, health and care of the environment are actively encouraged. These are not just one-off cost savings to clients and society in the delivery of construction products, but continue in their efficiency, maintenance and operation over the full product life cycle for many decades.

President Thabo Mbeki provides us with a vision of an African Renaissance, which must have as one of its central aims the provision of a better quality of life for the masses of its people. This provides us with a goal for a sustainable society (or sustainable living) with a high quality of life. No African Renaissance can be envisaged, however, without engineers and the construction industry.

Sustainable living is the goal.

Sustainable development is the process that will get us there.Sustainable development, on the other hand, is an all-embracing process which makes it possible for all people to realize their potential and improve their quality of life in ways that, at the same time, protect and enhance our planet s fragile life support systems. It has been defined as:

social progress for each and every person

maintenance and growth of economic stability and employment

safe and effective environmental protection and enhancement

non-exploitation of natural resources

Definitions of sustainable development are many and varied, but this is no excuse for doing nothing. Everyone involved in development can do something. Sustainable development needs to be embraced by engineers and engineering. It needs engineers to lead the way to approach development with an open mind. Industry so often views the delivery of sustainable development from its own narrow perspective, such as:

sustainable construction

sustainable manufacturing

sustainable agriculture

sustainable forestry

sustainable transport and tourism

which all contribute towards sustainable living. But if we are to survive beyond the next few generations, sustainable development must be seen holistically as development that enables sustainable living with a high quality of life. Delivering sustainable development will enable us all to live more and more sustainably and enjoy life forever.


There is little evidence that civil engineering has embraced sustainable development except under exceptional circumstances where the client and users, or more likely the community, have demanded it. From this has evolved the environmental impact assessment that asks important questions such as:

Where is it? ecological, social and environmental impact, land use, etc.

What is it? function, aesthetics, emissions, etc.

What is it for? private, public, community use, etc.

How is it constructed? duration, access, pollution, waste, etc.

How does it perform? energy and water efficiency, economics, viability, life, etc.

These isolated cases have not taken into account the continuing social and environmental impacts throughout the life of the facility. There has been very little, if any, feedback from how the facility works in practice to facilitate improvements in future projects. What is needed is to get the right harmonious balance for all development projects. What is called for are sustainable impact assessments. Only then will we see sustainable development as the norm.

It is pertinent to consider the relative costs of a facility. If the cost of design is taken as one, the cost of construction is an order of magnitude greater. Research has shown that the cost of maintaining that facility over its useful life, however, is about five times the construction cost, and the operating cost about 200 times the construction cost. In other words, the ratio of design:construction:maintenance:operating is 1:10:50:2000. Thus, even in a restrictive economic sense, much of the most important benefits will spring from attention to the quality and performance of the facility throughout its life. If we are going to produce satisfactory solutions to the demand for increased and sustainable performance, then there must be increased effort during the design stage to ensure that the construction, maintenance and operating stages are sustainable.

For example, if we are to consider various alternative rural transport systems, a sustainable impact assessment would conclude that the railways are the most economically, socially and environmentally friendly option. Yet railways are rarely economically successful over the long term and require large capital investment in their infrastructure.


Construction is a highly competitive industry generally focused on the production of a single and unique end product. Both the design and construction of each facility is best achieved in a project format that addresses the realization of a single constructed facility. The project is organized to achieve the most effective and efficient use of resources. The growing demand for better services and infrastructure results in considerable activity being needed just to maintain a standard performance, without providing any improvement. The increase in complexity and constraint because of greater interaction with its environment (economic, ecological and social) requires an exponential increase in effort. The objective must be the optimization of the overall performance of all the interrelated facilities.

A properly planned project format is such that we no longer need to predict the future we make it happen! This implies that we must take responsibility for the right balance not always being achieved in disharmony with the environment, with society and future generations, for the unnecessary depletion of non-renewable resources because we have assumed there is an ample supply.

Depending on the type of construction and specification, materials contribute as much as 60 percent of total project costs and the sector is therefore a major role-player.As engineers we must be involved with waste and energy minimization all through the life cycle. Sustainable development and resource efficiency is not only for the rich, but is required throughout the industry until it becomes the normal way of design and construction.

There is a long way to go when it is considered that the construction industry is the world s largest user of raw resources, devours 40% of all materials extracted from the earth and in the building process consumes 40% of the world s energy and exhausts 40% of the world s carbon dioxide emissions (not to mention the considerable waste and pollution). It is only too clear that the responsible designer and contractor must be more considerate of the sustainable environment and utilize renewable resources, and reclaim, recycle and reuse construction materials.

Three of the ten biggest international cement companies operate in SA, including the top two.Construction relies on the production of cement, steel, glass, lime and bricks, all of which South Africa produces from natural, non-renewable resources. This requires extensive mining of raw materials and transformation to the final products with a high consumption of energy and a potential to harm the existing environment. South Africa fortunately enjoys one of the lowest costs of electricity in the world, with Eskom supplying over 50% of Africa s electricity needs. But at what cost to the rural community?

The production of construction materials takes the widespread raw materials to highly concentrated specialized plant. The infrastructure that is developed is to facilitate the easy movement of this rural wealth to the urban consumers. Little, if any, of the added value on these materials is returned to the communities where they were mined, particularly because of the high capital investment requirements and specialized skills involved which are concentrated in the urban areas.

Within the construction industry there is limited awareness of safety, health, sustainability and environmental aspects of design and implementation, let alone use. It is evident that the impact of design and construction on waste, on the use of water and energy, is not yet a factor in the delivery of value to clients and society.


Research and development in the construction industry by both the public and private sectors lags behind, often by an order of magnitude, research and development in other sectors.Private sector research and development investment is particularly low in the construction industry compared with similar investment in the rest of engineering. This is not peculiar to South Africa and can be attributed to the perceived competitive nature of the construction industry, where a price-led imperative tends to discourage private sector research and development investment in construction and the built environment. Research and development therefore relies heavily on government initiatives, but these are usually under-funded and lag behind the need to be at the cutting edge of construction.

There is clearly an urgent need for increased research and development in the construction sector. A strategic action plan needs to be implemented to integrate and enhance professional and technological skills, academic and practical excellence, research and development capacity, and above all transformation. Research and development that demands quality products linked to enhanced academic and industrial performance and professional and practical skills will ultimately result in a more responsive industry that provides better value to the clients, consultants, contractors and the end users of the built environment.

Research is needed to focus on targeted rural infrastructure development programmes to include the needs of the community, with contractors, consultants and owners. Gearing of identifiable sustainable development should ensure a rapid spread of the development ideals and techniques. The focus should include client and industry development, procurement and partnering with the society so that the momentum can be sustained.


Emanating from an initiative from the Vice Chancellor, the Institute for Rural Development (IRD) has been established at Mangosuthu Technikon. While the IRD has its focus on developing the capacity of the Technikon to work closely with rural communities and to develop appropriate approaches and technologies to sustainable rural development, a gap has been identified concerning the delivery process.

The Mantec Method is a concept which recognizes the rural people s biophysical strategies such as bio-diversity, micro-environments, multi-purposeness, along with their socio-economic strategies like mutual cooperation, exchange of experiences, and social security.Sustainable rural infrastructure development sits comfortably with the Mantec Method for implementing sustainable rural development programmes in KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces in the RSA (IRD 2005). It is not merely a question of creating equal opportunities, but to define the goal of equal attractiveness for anyone to live in any part of the country. This would then eliminate any distinction between rural and urban communities and ensure that a high quality of life could be enjoyed by all. To this end, some possible areas of investigation could include:

transferring technology to a rural community

reduce and eventually eliminate rural poverty

recycling rubble for masonry dam construction

sustainable construction

upgrade roads gravel to blacktop, dirt to gravel

maintain and upgrade schools

sanitation to individual households pit latrines water-borne septic tank full sewerage

green finance for energy efficiency

green low cost housing and roads

low cost does not mean low quality

wheat straw bales as building material

job creation through labour intensive construction

access to land

cost of accidents in construction

HIV/AIDS awareness and cost in rural construction

standpipe communal water-selling kiosks individual connections

water quality

energy development and distribution

and so on


Construction, development of infrastructure and economic progress are almost inseparable. Construction represents one of the largest economic sectors in any country and has been referred to as the engine that drives the overall economy. In some developing countries, construction may exceed half of the government development budget. But the rural colonial imbalances in South Africa must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

An important feature of the construction economy is its multiplier effect. It is estimated that for every rand invested in construction, about 80 cents incremental earnings are generated to the Gross National Product (GNP). The corresponding figures are for agriculture about 20 cents and for manufacturing about 14 cents. From the fiscal point of view, investment in construction is more desirable to boost the economy along with investment in sustainable construction research for sustainable living.

Construction creates large scale employment which by itself is a significant contribution to the national economy. It is also a good vehicle for the distribution of wealth which means that a significant proportion of the money spent in construction moves directly from the rich to poor people, especially in rural areas. Elimination of the rural colonialism mindset would go a long way towards empowering the rural communities, and the development of a sustainable rural infrastructure by the people for the people would make all of our beautiful country equally attractive to live in.

In other words, we need to build a strong technological base as a means of improving the living conditions of all South Africans. It is impossible to achieve acceptable economic growth so long as South Africa remains a scientifically and technologically backward country. The demand is for sustainable impact assessments for all infrastructure construction to ensure inclusive sustainable development for all our people.

Overall, we should be aiming to create appropriate civil engineering works or buildings:

in the right place and to the right scale,

with a sound choice of materials and sources,

with high environmental performance and

an appropriate design life in harmony with their surroundings and neighbours

so that, as soon as possible, this way becomes our normal design, construction, operation and maintenance and living.