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‘If we can’t properly maintain the infrastructure we’ve built, then we shouldn’t be building new ones’

04 May 2022

An ICE member asks if civil engineers should be doing more to share the importance of regular maintenance of infrastructure beyond team and geographical boundaries.

‘If we can’t properly maintain the infrastructure we’ve built, then we shouldn’t be building new ones’
Sierra Leonian civil engineer Sallu Pujeh learned some important lessons about maintenance when he returned home to fix his home town's water network system. Image credit: Shutterstock

While working in Sierra Leone as a civil engineer for seven months, I was able to appreciate the significance of infrastructural maintenance.

Growing up as a young person in Sierra Leone, I observed roads that connected towns and cities left to become engulfed with myriad potholes.

They would only be reconstructed after incalculable vehicle and ghastly human fatality occurrences.

In 2013, for instance, Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, experienced a horrific collapse of the Freetown King Jimmy Bridge on Wallace-Johnson Street in the Peters Creek area.

It claimed the lives of at least seven people.

Seven years later, Freetown witnessed another bridge collapse, the Savage Street Bridge, a historic bridge that connected the centre of Freetown with the west end of the city.

Sadly, this has been the same episode characterising much of the country's infrastructure.

Returning home to rebuild a water network system

As a Sierra Leonean, I was thrilled to return home as a civil engineer to help rebuild the water network system that could provide the residents of Freetown with clean drinking water.

The work was done under the £48m Freetown Water Rehabilitation Project, funded by the Department of International Development (DFID), now Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO).

While working on the project, I experienced water pipes that went for days without running water.

This made me a victim of a water crisis, like many other people who’ve been living in the capital for decades.

Strengthening a bridge on the main site access route

As the package manager responsible for the construction of two service reservoirs and installation of up to 6km of pipelines, my initial task was to strengthen the Angola Town Bridge as part of our enabling work.

engineer stood on Angola bridge in Sierra Leone before it was strengthened. Image credit: Sallu Pujeh
Sallu Pujeh on the Angola Town Bridge before it was reinforced. Image credit: Sallu Pujeh

This was the only known access route that connected the Angola site to the rest of the town.

During the pre-construction stage, the bridge was inspected by our sub-consultant, and the outcome of their evaluations noted that the bridge was not fit for purpose.

They, therefore, recommended strengthening the bridge before starting our main construction works at the Angola site.

However, the strengthening works were delayed due to the planning approval from the Sierra Leone Road Authority (SLRA).

Saving a bridge and preventing a disaster

Armed with a 3D model and animation of the proposed strengthening work, I chaired a meeting with the SLRA leadership team seeking their approval.

The bridge was a reinforced concrete bridge with three beams.

I told them that the mid-beam was cracked near the centre of the span, due to increased bending stress that was likely caused by insufficient reinforcement.

When a load was imposed on the bridge, there was an increased bending stress which led to an increased deflection that caused the cracks.

I concluded that it was not if, but a matter of when the bridge would collapse, because of the increased construction plant load expected on the bridge during the construction phase.

With such an anticipated disaster looming, I refused to put my team at such a risk.

Luckily, they understood the enormity of the situation and granted permission for the bridge strengthening works.

One bridge saved for the future.

BAM Nuttall team of engineers on newly-strengthened Angola Town Bridge in Sierra Leone. Image credit: Sallu Pujeh
Sallu Pujeh's team on the now-reinforced Angola Town Bridge. Image credit: Sallu Pujeh

Sharing lessons learned

The water network is run by the Guma Valley Water Company (GUMA).

My part of the work was quite critical, involving tapping into the only pipe that connects the water treatment and distribution centres.

I chaired a lessons-learned session with GUMA’s maintenance and operations team, to understand why I and many others had been victims of no running tap water.

The GUMA water network designed and constructed in the early 1960s was meant to serve 800,000 inhabitants.

Yet one of the two main pipes that connected the treatment centre and the distribution centre was out of use. The whole water network system needed to be rehabilitated to increase the water supply to residents of Freetown.

At the end of the session, I told the head of the maintenance team that the rehabilitation project would only be successful if the network would be properly maintained.

Maintenance is essential to sustainable infrastructure

Sustainability in infrastructure can only be achieved if the infrastructure built is sustainably maintained and repurposed. Not rehabilitated and rebuilt a couple of years after construction.

To achieve this, our expertise and lessons learned must be shared beyond boundaries.

My question to everyone is: what are you doing to ensure that your expertise is shared far beyond your team and geographical location?

If we cannot properly maintain and repurpose the infrastructure we built, then we should not be building new ones.

  • Sallu Pujeh, sub agent at BAM Nuttall