The most recent issue of the magazine Population Connection notes several interesting things.  First, the world’s population grows by 80 million people per year, predominantly in areas that are not “first World” countries.  In many of these places water is limited – 1.2 billion people live in these areas. By 2030, 40% of the people, especially those in these areas will be facing water deficits that will increase their risks.  Some of these deficits will be exacerbated by climate changes.  Agriculture is responsible for 70% of water use, and that number is not expected to decline as the need for agricultural products increases with time.  So clearly water use and population are related, just as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and population appear to be related. Worse yet, the number of urban residents that do not have access to wastewater services is expected to increase by 50%.  The good news, not so much in the US, where such services are expected and available to the vast majority of people.  So the problem – most of these people live in Third World countries that lack both the economic resources and social infrastructure to deal with these problems.  This is what Engineers Without Borders is trying to address but it does raise that question – what are the social consequences of trying to help them?  Surely engineering ethics say we should help protect the public health, safety and welfare, which this work does.  But on the other side, if they develop more and add more people, does that add to the strain on limited resources in these areas which might damage the public health safety and welfare.  Which is the more critical issue?  And how do we decide? How should engineers evaluate the conflict between public health and sustainability from an ethics perspective? Just asking?


Over the past couple weeks I have been at two conferences and had two interesting conversations.  The first one was in Anaheim at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition.  The subject was the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB).  The organization has the mission to help get drinkable water to people in undeveloped parts of the world.  Nearly two billion people do not have clean drinking water which drastically impacts their health and ability to be productive and earn a living.  Many of these people live in Africa and Asia; some in central and South America as well.  The mission is a noble one – to help people.  But the guy I was talking to raised an interesting question – if we help all these people get water, they will demand more resources and if the resources are already limited, won’t creating more demands for those resources compromise our access and cost to those services?  Hence helping them actually creates competition with us for the same resources and that can compromise our goals.  Clearly not a fan of EWB, but, an interesting take on the issue..…

The second conversation was a few days later when a group of people were talking politics.  The conversation inevitably ended up on political parties and people and service organizations like Engineers Without Borders that are often viewed as being ”liberal” or “progressive” as opposed to “conservative.”  The discussion got around to this question – would conservative groups give money to progressive groups like EWB?  The answer was a resounding yes, because that would improve conditions which would make people more productive, which means more jobs, and more income to give more people access to buy more things, which creates a demand for more things, which expands the economy.  In other words, increase profits for those folks building the “things.”  Interesting twist, and you thought is was all about water….


There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?

There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.

Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.

So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?  Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?


You may not realize it, but perhaps the greatest discovery that we will see in this decade is Pluto.  It is the first new planet we have visited.  It is also the only new planet any of us that are alive today will ever see.  All other planets are in other solar systems are are not reachable in our lifetimes.  We should all marvel at this wonder that the USA and NASA started 9 years ago  The arrival comes 85 years after Pluto was first detected/discovered.  That’s the amount of fime the fine actor/director Clint Eastwood has been alive.  This is very cool….click on the word Pluto below for a ppt.

Pluto

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