18 March 2009

Challenges and prospects of civil engineers in Sarawak

By Dr Dominic Ong

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Civil engineering may seem a staid, tough and unglamorous profession to some, but it is a profession that deals with some of the world’s most pressing issues today. Amongst them are access to clean drinking water, environmental rehabilitation, renewal of infrastructure systems, extraction of natural resources and provision of sustainable solutions to ever-increasing energy needs.

According to United Nations Population Division, worldwide population is expected to increase by 2.6 billion over the next 45 years – from 6.5 billion today to 9.1 billion in 2050. Mankind will need more civil engineers to find solutions for this burgeoning population. Not only must civil engineers design and commission large scale projects, they will also be tasked to be ‘green’ in their approach to preserve the fragile environment whose degradation is often linked to development.

Malaysia will certainly be part of this wave of development. As pointed out by Works Minister Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed, Malaysia would need 250,000 engineers by 2020, i.e., about one engineer to every 100 citizens, which is the ratio for developed nations. Currently, we only have about 60,000 engineers. To achieve that target, the nation must roll out an average of 10,000 engineering graduates each year, not an easy task.

Civil engineering is a multi-disciplinary course that arms its graduates with the necessary design and management skills involving various sub-disciplines such as structures (concrete and steel), road and pavement, water and environmental, hydraulics and hydrology, geotechnical and cost management. In recent years, environmental sustainability in design has been embedded in most civil engineering subjects because civil engineers are directly involved with the natural surroundings in most development projects.

In recent years, Sarawak has been in the forefront of development sweeping through the nation. In November 2006, the State Legislative Assembly passed the Regional Corridors Development Authorities Ordinance 2006 to facilitate the establishment of the Regional Economic Development Authority to manage and promote SCORE, or Sarawak Corridor for Renewable Energy. SCORE, one of five regional development corridors to be developed nationwide, is located within the Central Region (Sibu, Bintulu, Mukah, Sarikei and Kapit) stretching some 320km along the coast from Tanjung Manis to Simalajau and extending into surrounding areas and hinterland.

Its objective is to develop the central region and transform Sarawak into a developed State by 2020. Ten priority industries have been earmarked for major development: oil-based, metal-based, timber-based, aluminium, glass, tourism, palm oil, livestock, fishing and marine engineering. Each industry would require the expertise of civil engineers to plan, design and build its associated plants as well as infrastructures such as roads, jetties, ports, and water pipelines, thus potentially creating a huge economic spin-off to the State’s construction industry.

In another initiative, the State government in July 2008 announced the construction of 12 hydroelectric dams to be built to push the total generating capacity to 7,000 megawatts by 2020 to support the energy-hungry industries shortlisted by SCORE. This will be an increase of more than 600% to the current energy production in the State. Without a doubt, many civil engineers will be needed for such large-scale construction. Environmental engineers will also be needed to carry out impact assessment studies to ensure successful production of this ‘green’ energy.

Civil engineers specializing in the fields of hydraulics and hydrology will definitely be needed to address the nagging flood problems, especially in Bau, Kuching and Sibu. There are undoubtedly many other low-lying areas that would also require proper flood mitigation studies and effective implementation.

Geotechnical engineers are specialist civil engineers trained in the field of soil and rock mechanics. They are involved in road projects, construction of dams, earth-retaining structures, deep excavation, ground improvement, slope stability assessment and deep foundation systems, amongst others. Recurring landslides that damage roads and properties are typical situations where the expertise of a geotechnical engineer could be tapped for slope repairs, remediation and prevention.

Construction of buildings and road embankments on peat and very soft clays are other common problems that require further design refinement. Deterioration of riverine facilities such as jetties, ferry ramps, wharves and bridges due to riverbank instability is a lingering design and construction problem that has not been fully understood due to complex soil-structure interaction, thus posing a great challenge to geotechnical engineers. As such, demand for geotechnical engineers will always be high.

Civil engineers who specialize in road design and pavement technology will find challenges in designing road embankments and pavements supported on notoriously difficult grounds such as peat and soft soils, which are found throughout Sarawak. In extreme cases, road alignment may be revised to avoid difficult terrain to ensure serviceability of roads in the long-term. SCORE has already created spin-offs of road projects in the central region to ensure connectivity between new townships and the hinterland.

Benefitting from the creation of new townships are structural engineers who design and build new office blocks, water and wastewater treatment plants as well as commercial and residential properties. In addition, for road alignment that crosses rivers and streams, road bridges are necessary.

Poverty eradication and rural development projects championed by the State government will also lead to construction spin-offs such as the demand for schools and infrastructures, for instance, connecting roads and public amenities. Civil engineers will again be needed to implement such projects.

Clearly, the prospects for civil engineers are plentiful. The challenge is for the country to turn them out in sufficient numbers, quality and time.

Dr Dominic Ong is a lecturer with the School of Engineering and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at elong@swinburne.edu.my