By Michael Kopulande
BEng (Civil), MSc (Struct), MSc (Infra Eng.), MEIZ, REng, Chevening Scholar –UK (2016/17)
In this country, we have specific institutions that provide a very important service to the nation through the use of public infrastructure assets. A quick definition of public infrastructure assets are those physical properties owned by a nation that are used to enhance the economic value of the country and were mostly constructed or came to being using public funds. As such, they may be referred to as “physical assets”.
In Zambia in particular, ZESCO, RDA, Water Utility Companies, ZAMTEL, Zambezi River Authority, Zambia Airports Corporation, Zambia Railways, Local Authorities, etc., are the main players in the management of our public physical assets. According to our Zambian system, all these companies (institutions) or authorities are established through acts of parliament and their governance and management as well as operational procedures are enshrined in our national laws. This is so because these institutions play a very big role in advancing the nation’s economic agenda and indeed enable the citizens to maintain a certain level and standard of lifestyle. We therefore derive value as the people of this country from these companies because we are beneficiaries to the services they provide. We also need to realise that all this derived value is driven by the physical assets that these companies manage – roads, water reticulation infrastructure, dams, power lines, bridges, canals, harbours, sub-stations, communication towers, control centres, toll gates, sewer lines, airports, bus stations, power stations, etc.
The management of these infrastructure assets is therefore cardinal so that as a nation we can continue to derive value from them. Infrastructure asset management is a very technical and a highly specialized area, but for the purpose of this article, I will try to expound myself in a language that we can all understand so that the ideas contained herein can get across many minds with relative ease.
- CURRENT SCENARIO
The acquisition of these public physical infrastructure assets cost this country a great deal of financial resources, partly because by nature, physical infrastructure is expensive, but also because these are essential assets that the nation requires for the wellbeing of its citizens. Prior to independence, the construction of the Kariba Dam in 1953 cost the colonial government a great deal of money, at its time of construction was arguably the most daring and most expensive civil engineering project in the whole of Africa. After independence, the UNIP government embarked on the construction of the TAZARA railway line with a loan from the Chinese government. The TAZARA is dubbed the largest project outside of China up to date, and as things stand, we are still to pay off the loans for this magnificent project. Fast forward to 2019, the loans acquired through RDA and ZESCO to work on our roads and electricity infrastructure have left this country in a very distressful position as regards our external debt position. The above underscores the seriousness attached to acquiring new infrastructure assets for the advancement of our economy.
Can we say the same seriousness is attached to the management of these assets after they have been acquired? How much do we the citizens demand that matching investment should be channeled towards the management of these assets? How many of the companies mentioned above have any Infrastructure asset management imbedded in their policy statements and indeed included in their strategic plans.
A well-managed physical asset saves the company a lot of money through the reduction of the operating costs. The need for heavy capital expenses on new infrastructure is totally reduced as much value can still be generated from the existing infrastructure. Furthermore, the operating performance is improved as a result of low failure rates leading to increased availability. A well-managed asset is resilient and reliable, thereby giving the economy at large a reliable derived value leading to increased performance within the economy. Therefore good asset management optimizes all these benefits through the determination of the best blend of activity to achieve the best balance of the above for the benefit of the individual organization and in general for the benefit of the larger economy.
That said, infrastructure asset management is not just about maintenance, instead maintenance is just part of the stewardship of assets, but so is design, procurement, installation, commissioning, operation – its indeed about managing the whole life cycle of a physical infrastructure. It should however not be a substitute of quality management within these organisations, but should be subjected to scrutiny through a quality process to ensure rigour.
Recently, residents of NAPSA Housing Complex of Lusaka’s Nyumbayanga area woke up to a rude shock when it was discovered that the water being supplied to the complex had been contaminated and caused almost each and every household within the complex to suffer from diarrheal diseases. This is an interesting case of a firm failing to secure their infrastructure assets such that contamination of the system can easily result. In the road sector, leading up to Christmas, we had some wash-aways of culvert structures on the road leading to Lundazi. News of small bridges (culverts) collapsing which are under the management of local authorities is almost an everyday occurrence. Driving around Lusaka, it’s a very normal sight to come across street lights that are not functional or indeed some distress in terms of potholes on our newly constructed roads, including some road signs having being vandalised. In terms of our railway network, the situation could even be worse as our locomotives are forced to travel at very low speeds due to the unreliability of the railway track.
The meaning of all the above is that the government and indeed the tax payers will not derive economic value from such unrealiable infrastructure assets. Furthermore, more resources are needed to repair or indeed replace some of the infrastructure pieces within the network whose service levels may have drastically dropped. As a country, we need to realise that our envisaged economic development will never come to pass with unreliable, non-resilient, unsecured physical infrastructure assets. This realization needs to be at the centre stage of the institutions whose sole responsibility is to manage our public physical assets for the economic benefit of the general citizenry and tax payers.
I am a firm believer that everything within a state (country) must be linked to the economy of that particular country. Be it human resource, financial resources, natural resources, innovative resources and in this case physical infrastructure asset management must be linked to the economy of the nation. Over the last few years, we have witnessed massive investment in our physical infrastructure asset by the Patriotic Front government. The sole purpose of this investment is so that the country can see an accelerated economic growth which will in turn raise the living standards of our people. However, only when the whole nation at large can derive value from such assets can the above objective be achieved. Let us pay undivided attention to the management of these assets if at all we need to see a difference in our economic fortunes. Our current scenario as explained above on the way we are managing these assets leaves much to be desired and as such, this paper should act as a clarion call to the managers of our public assets to step up, be innovative and put in place a good “Infrastructure Asset Management Plan” for the benefit of all citizenry. A good start will be to understand their assets life cycle, i.e., Acquire – Commission – Operate and finally dispose. This is a key concept within infrastructure asset management and is therefore worthy of scrutiny. Another item worth of consideration is the management of risk within asset management – that is basically the need to predict how the current interventions are likely to impact the future performance of the assets. This in turn will determine the required level of investment into the assets during the operation stage.
In conclusion, I would like to urge all citizens to demand for a better service from our institutions managing our public physical assets – let us think the economy, derived value, risk of failure or loss of service and the likely consequences, the inter-dependence and connectedness of our infrastructure across sectors, the impact on the economy due to a reduced service level and indeed on our own quality of life and standard of living.
The Author is a Civil/Structural Engineer, Infrastructure Planning Expert as well as a Chevening Scholar (2016/17)