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Our lives in their hands

I apologise to those readers who might have been in the audience when I gave a talk to the Ghana Institute of Engineers at the institute’s offices at Roman Ridge in Accra some years ago. I don’t recall if I had a written speech but I do remember clearly what I told them; I took them through my day until I got to their function and it is the same story I am telling today.

My day starts when my radio comes on at about 5a.m. It means I wake up needing to say thank you to an engineer. The journalists and programme makers might be the best there are, but for the engineering feat of the radio and how the words and sounds are transmitted, I would not get that obligatory early morning radio wake-up fix.

When I stir and go to the bathroom, it is to the WC and another engineering feat. Then I approach the washbasin and turn on the tap to brush my teeth and wash my mouth, after which I move to the shower cubicle and have a shower, warm or cold depending on the weather. Every stage of my stay in the bathroom is dependent on the expertise of an engineer of one type or the other.
My next stop is to find some clothes to wear and I go to the ironing board to iron the clothes, still needing to say a silent thank you to an engineer.

At this stage, I am almost in a fit state to meet the world and I move to the kitchen to come face to face with an array of gadgetry that engineers have developed to improve the quality of life for humanity. The kettle to boil water for my cup of coffee that really wakes me up; the stove, if a boiled egg is on the agenda; the refrigerator for the fruit juice and the toaster for my obligatory slice of toasted bread.

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By this time, I have taken a number of phone calls, some quite important, many can wait to be dealt with later and some would get my blood pressure racing; all of which would not be possible but for the engineering skills that made the phone technology possible.

Then I look for my car keys and go to start on my journey in another engineering wonder, the car. As I drive, I can follow the news and comments on the car radio and I can communicate with other drivers on the roads without actually talking to them, thanks to the engineers.

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The roads, the ones with the pot-holes, the crudely constructed speed ramps, the culverts, the ones with proper drainage and properly overlaid asphalt, the well-constructed town roads with instructive road furniture, the highways, those with strange designs and inexplicably steep bends, the ones that fail within months of being constructed and ones that are a joy to drive on; the bridges, all are products of engineering.
I meet my first set of traffic lights, I must think of an engineer, the lights work, they don’t work, there must be an engineer in the reckoning somewhere.

I get to the function and someone is trying out the sound equipment: “One, two; one, two;” you must think of an engineer. I start to deliver my speech and the microphone doesn’t work or we have beautiful sound and everybody can hear me in crystal clear quality; there is an engineer some place. I told the engineers they were indispensable to our modern existence.

Just think of your day and the things that make or unmake your day; electricity, or in a language we can all understand, Dumsor, there are engineers. Your telephone and signal and network problems, Internet connections, your laptop, your computer, data usage, your screen freezes and your television reception is poor; there must be an engineer somewhere in the woodworks.
The newspaper you buy on your way to work; there would be an engineer, otherwise it wouldn’t be printed. Your office, the factory, they need engineers.

The hospital must have engineers to function and the doctor’s equipment are all engineering feats, from the humble, ubiquitous stethoscope to the MRI, all the testing that is ordered and on which the doctor depends to make his diagnosis, they all require engineering.

The building that is my home, like most other buildings, has the fingerprints of engineers all over it; the structure, the electricals, the plumbing, the fittings and all have to be signed off by the engineer.
As I told the Institute of Engineers, their members control the quality of our lives.

Maintenance culture

Unfortunately, many of our engineers do not seem to appreciate this vital fact. They seem willing to cut corners on technical details where they have the final say and no one can argue with them. The supervision they offer in road and building construction is often well below par. The strict maintenance culture that is second nature to engineers somehow gets lost among ours and they prefer the concept of “refurbishment” to regular maintenance.

In all other parts of the world, a maintenance routine is worked into structures when the engineers hand them over. For example, they would tell you a new car requires a service after so many kilometres of being driven; an elevator can take so many people of a certain weight on each trip and must be serviced every so many hours. Over here they build things and hand them over without any maintenance schedule and look on until it almost collapses and needs to be refurbished.

Of course there are engineering feats that seem to defy the laws of nature. People claim lands from the sea and build on them; roads are constructed through mountains and railway trains travel under the sea. The Dutch, for example, live in a country whose lands are below sea level. Such feats exist because nobody cuts corners in the construction and there is regular maintenance.

Dangerous compromises

Our engineers preside over compromises that endanger their machines and structures. In the wake of the flooding and fire disaster many minds have been turned to engineering and engineers in our country.
It is obvious we do not have anywhere near the number of engineers we need to make this country work. We do not have anywhere near the number of technicians we need to make the country work.
But the numbers that we do have can surely make their presence felt when they behave like true engineers. It might be a good idea for example for us to hear from the Institute of Engineers on the recent flooding disaster.