Dr Martin van Veelen

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Guest - Dr Martin van VeelenPresident, Federation of African Engineering Organisations

Dr Martin van Veelen, Former President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE), is currently a director at Iliso Consulting in Centurion and an industry veteran with a total of 33 years’ experience in civil engineering, environmental management and project management, mainly in water-related projects.

This includes extensive experience in water quality, especially water quality management, water quality monitoring and water quality assessment. He gained his extensive experience in numerous fields of engineering, including planning, design, construction and management, as well as in academia.

Recently, Dr. Van Veelen was elected as the new president of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations (FAEO). Dr Van Veelen was nominated and elected for this role by the executive committee of FAEO.

Construction Review magazine had an interview with him and below are the excerpts

How do you feel on your election as president of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations?
Being elected as the first President of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations is a significant honour, but at the same time an exciting challenge in that a new organisation has to be made operational.

What is your vision as president of Federation of African Engineering Organisations?
My vision is that the FAEO will ultimately bring together all engineering practitioners in Africa and standardise qualifications and training so that all professionals can practice freely across the continent. The FAEO will actively promote engineering as a profession and build capacity in order to provide the infrastructure that is needed to unlock the full economic potential of Africa.

When was SAICE formed, the reasons for forming it and its vision?
SAICE was formed in 1903 as a learned society that had the purpose of enhancing the art and science of civil engineering in South Africa. The 2003 centenary celebrations highlighted the importance of civil engineering’s contribution towards socio-economic development in a developing country. The centenary conference had the then president of the RSA, Thabo Mbeki and Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, as guests of honour. In his address president Mbeki called civil engineers the Leonardo da Vinci’s of our time.

What have been the noteworthy milestones in the development of SAICE?
SAICE has over the years contributed greatly to the development of civil engineering in South Africa by offering courses for continued professional development, organising conferences and producing documents such as the General Conditions of Contract that is widely used in the industry. A significant milestone was when the technologists and technicians amalgamated with SAICE, changing it from an organisation for civil engineers, to an organisation that serves all civil engineering practitioners.

How has SAICE benefited members and the civil engineering industry as a whole?
Over the last number of years SAICE has grown to an organisation of some 9 000 members. SAICE has been able to play a significant role in mobilising retired engineers to the local authorities in order to strengthen the capacity of those authorities to implement MIG (Municipal Infrastructure Grant) funded projects.

This has benefitted not only those companies that were involved in the design and construction, but also brought some relief to the beneficiary communities. Unfortunately this project was terminated by the South African Government about two years ago.

Many of SAICE’s members are also members of the South African Institute of Mine Engineers, and vice versa. Although the SAIME focuses primarily on mining issues, SAICE still provides the general civil engineering support.

Personal background

Academic qualifications
Ph D in Aquatic Health, M Eng in Water Utilisation, B Sc Civil Engineering.
Registered as a Professional Engineer
Certified Environmental Assessment Practitioner

Professional and career background and achievements
Started career with the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and remained there for 15 years. Rose from assistant engineer to deputy chief engineer. Joined BKS in 1993 and remained for 12 years. Was a Technical Director responsible for environmental management.Joined ILISO in 2005 as Director responsible for the Environmental and Water Resources Management Discipline Group.

While at the DWA I was involved in the planning of the Lower Great Fish River Government Water Scheme that supplies water to Grahamstown, and also the Wolwedans Dam near Groot Brak in the Southern Cape that supplies water to the Mosgas scheme. Was later the technical team leader of a team of specialists that developed drinking water guidelines for South Africa. Was the team leader for a feasibility study and design for water supply, sanitation, stormwater management and solid waste disposal for seven towns in Uganda. Have worked extensively in Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lybia).

At present the technical team leader for the preliminary design of a 500km, 2.4 m diameter pipeline in Botswana, involved in the development of a 25-year integrated transportation master plan for Gauteng, the implementation of the waste discharge charge system that has the objective to reduce nutrient loads entering the Hartbeespoort Dam and thereby improve the water quality, and team leader for the planning and design of a new river water intake works in Uganda. Has been the team leader for a number of environmental impact assessments for major projects, such as the planned Kobong pumped storage scheme in Lesotho.

As President of SAICE

When did you become President of SAICE?
I was the President-Elect for 2011 and my term of office as President started in January 2012 and ended in December 2012.

What are the challenges you encountered?
SAICE has started on significant organisational changes in that it is turning into a regional organisation, serving civil engineering practitioners in all the SADC countries. Although this has only started, the foundation had to be laid. My other challenge has been to engage Government on a plan for co-operation and support to implement the Infrastructure Plan and those parts of the National Development Plan that relate to civil engineering. The former challenge is going well, but the second one has proven a difficult nut to crack. I will continue my efforts on that one as immediate past president next year.

What are the achievements accomplished during your tenure?
The achievements are not mine, but those of SAICE as an organisation. The biggest achievements have been in participating and playing a significant role in getting FAEO constituted after many years of discussions and negotiations. The other has been in establishing closer ties with our fellow professionals in many of the SADC countries, and signing a memorandum of understanding with the Indian engineers. This all sets the scene for an increased involvement in civil engineering on global terms.

The Building and Construction Industry

What are the problems plaguing the industry/profession?
The biggest problem is the procurement system that favours cheap, but to all intents and purposes prevents Government to obtain value for money. The second, but by no means less significant problem is the lack of experienced professionals in all spheres of Government. This leads to a lack of mentors to train young engineering professionals, who then prefer to work in the private sector in order to develop into fully competent professionals. Although there are still some older engineers in Government, they are fast approaching retirement age. We are highly concerned that Government  will soon run out of capacity to plan ahead, which is exclusively a Government function, and that this lack of planning will only become apparent when disaster strikes.

What role has SAICE played in alleviating these problems?
SAICE has been actively co-operating with other engineering organisations such as CESA (Consulting Engineers SA) and ECSA(Engineering Council of South Africa) to engage with government on these issues. However, Government is a huge ship and it takes some time for it to change direction. The results of our efforts will probably only become visible in a few years.

What needs to be done in the future to further improve the industry/profession?
The industry is continuously improving itself as new materials and methods are developed. SAICE keeps its members abreast of these changes, and offers courses to enable professionals to improve their skills. The award-winning SAICE magazine Civil Engineering contributes substantially to this end.

What role must government play to alleviate the problems/challenges faced in the Construction industry.
Government will have to seriously reconsider the procurement process. Nobody asks for quotes when open heart surgery is needed, yet, when a 30- storey building has to be designed, tenders are issued and the cheapest is accepted; The same for dams, bridges and other structures that may pose a risk to public health and safety.

At the same time the condition of either a feast (the years leading up to the 2010 World Cup saw a high in engineering activity) or a famine (the industry is currently in a recession), is not conducive to establishing a thriving engineering industry which is key to economic development and job creation. Proper planning is required for this, as well as the implementation of projects that have been approved and budgeted for, and for this civil engineering professionals are needed. Too much money on Government budgets for infrastructure projects remains unspent at present.