Engineering super heroes
Next time you’re ill, would you like to see a doctor or an engineer?
Of course, this seems like a daft question. You want to see a doctor, right? A doctor will have trained for many years to diagnose and treat the full range of human ailments whilst the engineer might, at best, have done a first aid course. Doctors make people better; engineers put pipes in the road. If you are ill, you want to see a doctor. It’s straightforward.
Now pose yourself this question. Who save more lives; doctors or engineers? Again, it might seem obvious to say doctors, but perhaps the real answer is more complicated than that. I’m hoping to convince you that engineers are secret, life-saving super-heroes.
It is hard to imagine, but as recently as 150 years ago, the city of London had virtually no sanitation system. Raw sewage was collected in cesspits dug into the soil beneath people’s homes. Meanwhile, drinking water was drawn from wells dug into the very same soil. The distance between cesspit and water well was sometimes less than three metres.
"Water would need to be cleaned to remove the harmful bacteria contained. In addition, totally separate systems of clean and dirty water infrastructure would be required. And this is where the engineers came in."
During this time, people did not understand why epidemics of cholera and typhoid kept breaking out, killing large numbers of people. We know that sewage and drinking water are not best mixed but it took until 1854 for a doctor by the name of John Snow to make the link between disease and water cleanliness. He did a statistical analysis of the deaths following a cholera outbreak in Soho, London and noticed that each victim took their water from the same public well. He concluded that something dirty in the water was causing the deaths.
Snow’s findings were so shocking that initially they were not accepted. However, in time, politicians acknowledged the need to make all drinking water safe for human consumption. Water would need to be cleaned to remove the harmful bacteria contained. In addition, totally separate systems of clean and dirty water infrastructure would be required.
And this is where the engineers came in. Across the country, massive projects were undertaken to provide sewerage and waste-water treatment. In London, Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed a system of underground sewers that stretched over 1,900km. Construction of the London system required 318 million bricks, 2.7 million cubic metres of excavated earth and 670,000 cubic metres of concrete. Technology was developed to clean dirty water and sewage treatment works were constructed across the country.
"If you’re ill, go and see a doctor. But if you prefer to avoid getting ill in the first place, be thankful to the engineers who developed the infrastructure that provides wholesome drinking water to your home and takes waste water away from your home."
At the same time, huge investment was put in to separate systems for transporting and cleaning drinking water. Many northern cities built elaborate aqueducts to transport drinking water from mountainous regions. Manchester, for example, built the Thirlmere Aqueduct to transport water 150km south from the Lake District. It is the longest gravity-fed aqueduct in the country, with no pumps along its route. The water flows at a speed of 6 km/h and takes just over a day to reach the city.
Such infrastructure had a transformative effect on the health of the nation. Between 1860 and 1910 the rate of adult mortality in urban areas fell by 50%. For children, the rate fell by 75%. Clean water and sanitation was saving lives. In modern-day Britain, it is now almost inconceivable that people could catch a waterborne disease and outbreaks of cholera and typhoid are thankfully things of the past.
Improvements in fresh water and sewage engineering continue to this day. One of the UK’s biggest current engineering projects is a massive new tunnel under London called the Thames Tideway. Following in the traditions of Bazalgette, the tunnel will store and transport almost all the combined raw sewage and rainwater discharges that currently overflow into the River Thames. Meaning that, for the first time in 2000 years, human sewage will no longer be released into the river. Other innovative technologies being developed by the water industry include methane gas recovery from sewage for use as biofuel; and experiments using graphene nanotubes to filter the salt from sea water - therefore making it drinkable.
So if you’re ill, go and see a doctor. But if you prefer to avoid getting ill in the first place, be thankful to the engineers who developed the infrastructure that provides wholesome drinking water to your home and takes waste water away from your home. After all, prevention is better than cure.
2018 is the Year of Engineering
A career in engineering is exciting, rewarding and creative and yet there is a big shortage of engineers entering the workforce. The Year of Engineering aims to inspire the next generation and show young people what a career in engineering is actually like.
Resources to get students’ imagination flowing
Explore ways of conserving water using sustainable buildings and water recycling, the use of grey water, maintaining infrastructure and desalination. This lesson provides an opportunity to make links to the multitude of careers available in this area.
This collection is produced by Engineers Without Borders UK, an international development organisation that aims to remove barriers to development through engineering. It contains resources which challenge children to discuss big issues facing the modern world and the challenges this poses for engineers trying to find solutions to these global problems.
Water for the World was developed jointly by Engineers Without Borders UK and Arup, a global firm of engineering consultants and specialists. There are three resources, investigating issues of water scarcity, sourcing and supply and showing how engineers can help to solve problems.
This video introduces Nariba, a graduate water engineer for engineering company Halcrow. Nariba performs assessments for construction projects, focusing on flood risk management. Her work includes water management, drainage, flooding, water quality issues, flood risk management and flood defences.
From EngineeringUK, this resource contains a booklet and a presentation about careers in engineering. The booklet illustrates some of the routes into careers within engineering. The presentation, developed in response to requests from UK engineering companies, explains simply what engineering is all about.