What Thailand taught me

CONSULTANT: In 1980, Harvey Ludwig, left, advises senior engineers in Indonesia on how to modify the operation and maintenance planning of a water supply treatment plant being built in Jakarta, the capital. COURTESY HARVEY LUDWIGCONSULTANT: In 1980, Harvey Ludwig, left, advises senior engineers in Indonesia on how to modify the operation and maintenance planning of a water supply treatment plant being built in Jakarta, the capital. (Photo by Harvey Ludwig.)After 70 years in environmental engineering, Harvey Ludwig (B.S.’38, M.S.’42 CE) has learned a thing or two about the field.

Ludwig ran his own environmental engineering consulting firm in the United States for 26 years before moving to Thailand to start a company that consulted on water and sanitation projects there and in other developing countries around Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

It was an eye-opening experience, and ever since, Ludwig has freely shared his insights on how to translate Western technologies into best practices for emerging markets. He’s published papers, opined in journals, contributed to textbooks and advised heads of environmental agencies in Asia.

At 92, Ludwig remains passionate about what engineering can and should do for developing countries. Berkeley Engineering recently interviewed him via e-mail.

Q. How has environmental engineering changed over the course of your career?

A. In the United States during the 1930s, the only significant work by environmental engineers dealt with water pollution control and the safety of drinking tap water. In progressive steps, it’s expanded to include air pollution control, then solid waste management, and finally to include all types of development projects, especially those that encroach on the natural environmental habitat.

Q. Do you consider yourself an environmentalist or a proponent of development?

A. I’m both. Decision makers in all countries push economic development as the number one priority. My goal is to get decision makers from developing countries to agree to change all project plans, not just water and sanitation, as needed in order to give due attention to minimizing environmental degradation or even enhancing the environment in cases where a small amount of extra money significantly improves sustainability. 

Q. What took you to Thailand?

A. In 1973 I decided to escape my 70-hour-a-week career in the United States. My wife is Thai so we moved to Thailand. There, I set up a small company to do environmental work—primarily projects involving water supply and development and excreta and solid waste management— for developing countries. Within a couple years, I learned that technology developed in America and in other industrialized countries wasn’t appropriate, so I focused on modifying it and trimming it down to suit the existing economics and environmental standards of that country.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE: Thailand’s canals are used everywhere for local transport and irrigation, but the water supply is very poor due to untreated waste and pollution. The World Bank ranks Thailand lowest among Asian countries for annual per capita water availability and 14th in the world for industrial organic water pollution.WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE: Thailand’s canals are used everywhere for local transport and irrigation, but the water supply is very poor due to untreated waste and pollution. The World Bank ranks Thailand lowest among Asian countries for annual per capita water availability and 14th in the world for industrial organic water pollution.Q. Why wasn’t the technology appropriate?

A. To give some background, usually donor agencies, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, USAID and various United Nations agencies, fund the construction of sanitary engineering facilities (SEFs) in developing nations because these types of projects don’t make money for the home governments, as opposed to other infrastructure projects such as highways and harbors. The donor agencies are expert in SEF designs from industrialized countries (IC) because that’s where they’re from and that’s what’s familiar to them. Those designs guide what is constructed.

The problem is that IC designs require higher levels of post-construction operation and maintenance than developing countries can afford. (Donors end their financing and interest in the project upon completion of construction.) Usually, there is no provision for performance monitoring afterward, a great failing on the donors’ part. Every trained engineer knows that, without such monitoring, there is no feedback on what is correct or incorrect, and the design criteria can’t be improved. As a result, thousands of these SEFs built in developing countries over the last half century are very wasteful, both monetarily and resource-wise. Decision makers in the developing countries don’t want SEFs to be monitored for greater efficiency because they’re essentially interested in what we Westerners call graft. Because this system of graft is a vital part of all developing country governments from top to bottom, it’s customary and hence not unethical.

Q. Really, graft is okay?

A. You know the saying, “Money drives all systems.” I think a better expression is, “Immediate money drives all systems.” Most people focus on getting all they can immediately, regardless of long-term consequences, and most people I’ve known succumb to it sooner or later. It’s what I call the greed parameter. So development projects and operations that take into account the greed parameter and combine economic gain with environmental protection work the best. It’s the only truly sustainable approach.

Q. While working on these SEF projects, you modified designs from industrialized countries to match the country’s economic reality. Can you elaborate on that? Are these people getting a lower standard?

A. We modified designs to the level of U.S. standards and practices circa 1940, which is recommended for developing countries. That provides about 85 percent of today’s standard level of environmental protection at about 15 percent of the total production cost. The water and sanitation infrastructure situation in most developing countries today is similar to America circa 1900. So this represents a great leap forward.

Q. What happens when developing countries have weak or nonexistent environmental standards? What should engineers do?

A. Decision makers from very poor countries are generally keen to understand and apply a more environmentally sustainable approach to design, so my tactic has been to train and educate them as well as senior engineering staff from both the public and private sectors who deal with water and sanitation projects.

Q. How can engineers from industrialized countries do a better job of building infrastructure projects in developing nations?

A. First, learn how to modify projects based on standardized designs that will greatly reduce costs for construction as well as account for the replacement of operation and maintenance parts. For tips, study a chapter I wrote called “Appropriate Technology for Developing Regions” in the latest edition of Environmental Engineering: Water, Wastewater, Soil and Groundwater Treatment and Remediation, 6th Edition (Wiley). Work with donor agencies to include provisions that promote performance monitoring as well as training programs that teach native engineers your skills so they can run the projects when you leave. Make use of retired people like me who can set up on-the-job-training for operations and maintenance people so these projects perform optimally.