Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Engineering: The Engineer’s Call to Lake Malawi

There is something common about the waves, fishes, sand, rocks, and all the non-human features of Lake Malawi: their universal ignorance about what may soon befall their home, the fresh waters that have sustained them for ages.

Confirmed reports have it that it has pleased human beings to declare Lake Malawi a ‘suspect’. The State ‘accuses’ the lake of hiding one of the most sought-after commodities in the world- oil- in its underground belly. While this may, to natural resources-cupped Malawi, be an opportunity in the waiting; it is, to non-human inhabitants of the lake, a predicament.

Such a double predicament because, even if the water inhabitants and stand-still features had the will to know, and the brains to mind, no human being would still have bothered to seek their consent!

But, still unknown to them, there is one section of human beings that minds on their behalf- the engineer. Engineering- defined as the discipline, art, skill, profession and technology of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes- has proven to be such an important discipline in oil exploration.

Non-human mongers of Lake Malawi- dead or alive- would be happy- if they had the senses- to learn that the engineer has always stood up to their defense during feasibility studies. In such cases, engineers have not only helped by offering suggestions on equipment and analyzing samples; they have also helped assess the impact of human activities on the environment.

This is why Dr. Matthews Mtumbuka, president for the Malawi Institution of Engineers (MIE), believes that the local engineer will be crucial to Lake Malawi oil exploration exercises.

“Oil exploration and production is a very complex area and many disciplines of engineering are required. First of all, the equipment that is used for oil exploration requires engineers,” Mtumbuka says.

That is not all.

“Beyond that, when geologists find samples and conduct their analysis, they will, then, pass on their works to engineers to conduct engineering analyses. Oil engineers will quantify how much oil may be expected on the ground based on characteristics they see on the samples.

“Most importantly, the engineers will also quantify how much of the oil may be extracted, based on such characteristics as the porosity of material where oil is- depending on pressure patterns and many other characteristics.

“Engineers will also be involved in drilling and operating wells that would be used in further verifying initial findings as well as, eventually, the wells that would be used in the actual production of oil,” Mtumbuka adds.

But the typical engineer does not stop there as, during the production phase, engineers are, again, heavily involved in the installation of sophisticated equipment used in oil extraction and refinery. But the engineer’s job will be incomplete if he doesn’t get involved in the installation of pipeline systems used for oil transportation, among other activities.

In all cases, the engineer is the driver. May the driver, please, declare his position on oil exploration in Lake Malawi?

“MIE strongly supports the drive to explore oil in Malawi, and Malawian engineers will work to contribute positively towards efforts to find lasting solutions to forex and economic sustainability challenges facing the nation,” Mtumbuka declares.

The voice of a confident man, really. Does he think the Malawian engineer has what it takes, though?

“First, let us be frank here. The vast majority of Malawian engineers were trained at the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic. At the Poly, there are three main disciplines of engineering – civil, electrical and mechanical engineering. None of them is directly related to some of the core engineering disciplines required for oil exploration and production.

“Civil and mechanical engineering may help in drilling wells, but they will still need some more training in well-engineering. Electrical engineers may help in instrumentation and process engineering but, again, they will need some more training before they can work on oil platforms.

“In short, I see that, as we run the oil exploration project, in parallel, we urgently need a training programme. In the short term, existing engineers need to be sent for (such) short term specialized training (as) one year master’s degrees that help them major in the different specialized fields relating to oil operations.

“(These specialized fields include) reservoir engineering, well-engineering, process engineering, petroleum engineering,” Mtumbuka says, suggesting that, in the long term, the Poly should be equipped with requisite resources to incorporate oil exploration and production engineering courses.

But this does not question the credentials of the local engineer in national development. In fact, there is so much work for the engineer in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS).

At a workshop organized for business journalists by MIE in November 2010, the then Principal Secretary for Economic Planning and Development told stunned journalists that, out of the nine major themes of the MGDS, six of them were directly related to, and dependent on, the practice of engineering.

Mtumbuka elaborates: “Specifically, engineers are involved in the planning, designing and implementation of technical solutions to national problems relating to such areas as transportation on land, water and in air; relating to utilities such as water and electricity, housing, irrigation, manufacturing as well as telecommunications, among many other specialized engineering fields.

“Engineers are the people who design and put in place systems and structures that enable operations and production in all these areas. Engineers also manage the support, maintenance and modification of these systems when in operation.”

In the face of all these responsibilities, it comes as a surprise that MIE was born just recently, on December 4, 1998. Yet Malawi attained independence in 1964, and adopted multiparty system of politics in 1994. Could this explain the country’s sorry state of under-development?

The good news is that MIE is here to stay, according to Mtumbuka, mainly because the institution has set itself a target: to act as a voice, a platform, and centre for information and technological knowledge- sharing for different categories of engineers and technicians practicing in Malawi.

“The main objective of MIE is to advance the science and practice of engineering, thereby enhancing the contribution of engineering professionals to the social economic development of Malawi. MIE works hand in hand with the Malawi Board of Engineers, established under the Engineers Act (Cap 53.03) of the Laws of Malawi. MIE also works closely with the Malawi Government to influence policy for national social and economic development,” Mtumbuka says.

His hope is that, with MIE affiliated to the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, Commonwealth Engineers Council, African Engineers Forum, and the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, the country stands to benefit from knowledge sharing.

Close links with the Institution of Engineers Tanzania, Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers, a horde of institutions of Engineers in South Africa, and the Engineering Institution of Zambia, could also help the Malawian engineer come out clean in the Lake Malawi exploration exercise.

It is, in a way, the labour of perfection.

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