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The present water crisis calls for engineers with the vision of a Joseph Bazalgette

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What we need is not politicians, but statesmen. And, of course, engineers working in that Bazalgette traditione, writes Paul Finch

London and its system of government could be regarded as the product of one of the world’s great pieces of water-based city infrastructure - the embanking of the Thames and the creation of a modern sewerage system by Joseph Bazalgette.

He carried out his great project as chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works following the Great Stink of 1858. By 1865 the first phase was given a royal opening, though it took another decade before final completion. It included 82 miles of underground sewers to intercept outflows and 1,100 miles of street sewers.
With incredible foresight, Bazalgette (who had gained experience of land drainage and reclamation as a young engineer) doubled the diameter of the sewers, on the grounds that you only did this sort of project once and you needed to anticipate as yet unknown changes.

This was Victorian engineering at its magnificent best: not only functional, but incorporating a robust architecture and decorative style where appropriate, for example in respect of suburban pumping stations - plenty of messages here for those responsible for Crossrail stations today. One feels Bazalgette would have admired the Jubilee line project as being in the spirit of his own work, and would have recognised his generosity of spirit in the work of the late Roland Paoletti.

Bazalgette’s project had significant consequence for the future of London because of the subsequent history of his employer, the Metropolitan Board of Works. In 1889, with its reputation enhanced by the elimination of cholera (which proved to be water-borne rather than carried by foul air), the board morphed into the London County Council, forerunner of today’s Greater London Authority. Governance of a world city has its origins in the realisation that infrastructure is critical.
The importance of the relationship between engineering and cities, as well as rural areas, can scarcely be overestimated. Alas, what we have seen in recent decades is underestimation.

The defeatist mentality of the Environment Agency (not the admirable behaviour of staff on the ground) was an inadequate replacement for the practical attitudes of old-fashioned but effective drainage boards. Bird sanctuaries are not more important than protecting farms, and creating the one at the expense of the other is a form of madness, as is the failure to back engineering to create nuclear power stations and the systemic inability to make long-term transport decisions in a timely fashion, for example in relation to aviation policy. If these attitudes prevailed across the North Sea, The Netherlands would have drowned centuries ago. Instead, the Dutch pointed us to the possibility of managing water by proper engineering and putting in place mitigation measures which assume the worst. That is precisely what we have failed to do.

Let’s hope the latest water crisis spurs action on London’s most needed project: a new Thames Barrier, about which the Environment Agency seems to be in denial. We need to make plans now, and keep our fingers crossed that a catastrophic flood only happens when we have measures in place to make it less than catastrophic.

Perhaps the sorry recent scenes in the Thames Valley will remind politicians that the fundamental requirements of civil society are shelter, food and clean water. Should we need a rallying call for the importance of engineering for all our lives, the events of the past month have surely provided it. The politicians say they are listening, but then they always do. In any event, in these circumstances what we want is not politicians, but statesmen. And, of course, engineers working in that Bazalgette tradition, including a healthy respect for architecture and the world of interiors.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • It is unquestionable that engineering is key in order to deal with the current flooding situations and climate change however building a new Thames Barrier is not the solution. We are getting a taster for the flooding that will surely worsen in the future, a defence strategy is not sustainable in the long term. Engineering visions should focus on ways in which the built environment can embrace flooding; water must be at the forefront of design and retrofit in order for buildings and cities to cope with flooding and climate change.

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