National Chairman, Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers, Eddy Atumonyogo, in this interview with MAUREEN IHUA-MADUENYI, says government at various levels should engage professionals for maintenance of bridges and other public infrastructure across the country
The Third Mainland Bridge was recently closed for investigative maintenance test to be carried out on it. What does the process entail?
It was closed to carry out dynamic load tests on all the expansion joints on the whole length of the bridge. The test involves the induction of vibration on the bridge deck to measure the frequency of vibration and the deflection at the expansion joints. This type of test enables engineers to prescribe appropriate regime of maintenance work to be carried out on such joints. The whole lanes had to be closed because all the lanes are cast monolithically, with the service ducts at the centre; so the vibration of one lane affects all lanes. More modern bridges now have the service ducts outside the bridge deck, making partial closure of lanes possible while such tests are being carried out.
How long will it take for repair work to be carried out on a bridge like that and how often should this be done?
The results of tests on bridges usually determine the kind of maintenance work to be carried out, and the nature of the work determines the duration. If the bridge deck has to be repaired, there will be partial closure of some lanes so that commuters can still ply the road. If it involves work on the foundation of the bridge, then it will not hinder anyone from plying the bridge deck. Maintenance of bridges is supposed to be a routine activity. As an institution, we have been advocating this, and we are happy that the government is working towards this maintenance. Safety is of utmost importance and the inconvenience people suffer when bridges are being maintained cannot be compared to the catastrophe during a bridge collapse. It is better to be inconvenienced than, God forbid, end up in a body bag.
What are some of the things that can hasten the deterioration of a bridge, and how can these be avoided or reduced?
This is a very good question. Bridges usually have a design life of about 70 years, and there are smarter bridges now being designed that can last up to 100 years and beyond. The key to bridge life is maintenance. The maintenance and inspection regime includes daily, weekly, monthly and yearly activities. Some daily maintenance regime involves cleaning the bridge and making sure the drainage system is not blocked, because accumulated water on the deck is bad for the bridge surface. Then, there should be integrity test on bridges every five years to determine the overall capacity and state of the structural elements of the bridge in order to fix any noticeable defects on the deck, the foundation and the piers. When a bridge is not properly maintained, it will deteriorate and lose carrying capacity.
Apart from the Third Mainland Bridge, how can other bridges across the country be maintained to keep them in good shape?
There are federal and state bridges, though the bulk of them were constructed by the Federal Government. We have professional structural engineers in private practice, most of them idle most times. The government at various levels should engage them to inspect, test and prescribe the regime of maintenance and repair work necessary to preserve the capacity of these bridges. There must be daily, weekly, monthly and yearly maintenance activities on these bridges, in addition to the integrity and other interventionist tests that must be carried out. The skill, the experience and the willingness of the members of our institution are available, and the government should harness these for the safety of our citizens and good of our country.
There seems to be a general lack of maintenance culture in the country. What in your opinion should be done to entrench maintenance of public infrastructure?
This lack of maintenance culture is a recent development. In the sixties and early seventies, public infrastructural facilities were meticulously maintained. There were labourers on government payroll, known as road makers, who used to clear the bush and grass on either side of the public roads. The Public Works Department was very active in maintaining roads. Something terrible happened to this nation and we lost some of the culture and best practices bequeathed to us by the British bureaucrats. There is no public enterprise in the hands of government that runs well in the country. Where are NITEL, NEPA, Nigeria Airways, Nigerian National Shipping Lines and a host of others? The private sector in Nigeria has shown itself better in running and maintaining infrastructure and should therefore be encouraged to take on the responsibility maintaining public infrastructure. The less the government hands in our national life, the better for everybody. Hand over the maintenance of public infrastructure to qualified private sector practitioners and the culture will be entrenched.
Despite all efforts, there are still cases of building collapse in the country, especially in Lagos. What are stakeholders not doing right?
Building collapse has persisted because the system has not allowed best practices in the industry to flourish. There are people that profit from any confusion, and building collapse is one of the unintended consequences of such practice. The building process covers planning, design, construction and maintenance, and each of these components must be right to prevent a collapse. At the moment, buildings are designed by all manner of people both qualified and unqualified, and the approving authorities are not adequately staffed to competently vet structural drawings and monitor the construction process.
Construction of buildings is presently an all- comers’ affair, and the flooding of the market with substandard building materials has not helped matters. There has never been a meeting of all stakeholders to brainstorm and tell ourselves the truth. The concerned stakeholders are the government agencies, the lawmakers, the regulating agencies of the various built environment professionals, the professional associations and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria. All we have seen so far are efforts by different groups to stem the tide.
Governments at various levels have to enact enabling laws that will promote safe practices, professionalism, strengthen the approving agencies and work closely with the professional institutions.
We have said it several times that unless professionals in the built environment are compelled by law to practise only in their areas of core competence, quacks will always find their way into the system and structural failures and collapses will continue. Just like you do not expect a general medical practitioner to perform brain surgery successfully, only specialist practice in the built environment will eliminate quackery.
As structural engineers, we have been trained to design safe structures, and as an institution, before we register anyone as a structural engineer, you must pass a seven-hour, open book competency test, in addition to professional review interview, to ensure that you can be trusted to design safe structures. We are about the only division within the Nigerian Society of Engineers that conducts the seven -hour examination because we know that any mistake in our work will lead to loss of lives.
At the moment, there is no law in Nigerian statutes that ensures that building structures are designed by structural engineers, vetted and registered by the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers. Our role has been limited to ensuring that our members design and supervise safe structures while advocating best practices to regulatory agencies, approving authorities and the building public.
Government should also work closely with the professional institutions, as through peer review, they can get the best of the professionals. You will be surprised to know that none of our firm members is involved in all the massive government infrastructural development currently ongoing in Lagos State and yet 70 per cent of our members reside here. Our institution is only remembered when there is a collapsed structure, like the case of the Synagogue for All Nations building and Lekki Gardens collapsed building. Once we solve the problems, we are placed back in procurement cooler.
Where do you think individuals, and not just professional groups and government agencies, can come in?
First of all, every citizen of this great country is a critical stakeholder in this matter. Whenever there is a building collapse, there is every likelihood that lives will be lost. That life could be any life, and as such people ought to be concerned on how buildings are procured. When the Ebola virus came into this country, we all united and fought it. The scourge of building collapse has not reached epidemic proportion, but we must not allow it, but work conscientiously to eliminate it. In developed climes, public opinion is everything. People demand best practices and good governance, but somehow we accept the unacceptable in this country, and that is why we are stuck with bad governance at every level.
My advice to individuals is to form advocacy groups that will demand best practices in the built environment within their locality and beyond. You cannot get what you do not ask for. Liaise with the built environment professionals in your community, educate yourself on building procurement processes and procedure, and blow the whistle when you notice violations. It is everybody’s business to stem the tide of building collapse.
This Interview was first published in -The Punch