Learning from other people’s mistakes

Learning from other people’s mistakes

By Mike Muller

The readers of this column (both of them) will know that one of my management principles is to learn from other people’s failures and our own successes.

The benefit of this approach is that it encourages me to talk to people from interesting places and, where possible, to visit them.

In that spirit, I disembarked at Pisa Airport in Italy recently on my way to a small conference organised by the International Water Association — one of the more useful and practical of the international groups in the water business.

When I enquired at the airport railway station about tickets to Livorno where the meeting was being held, the guard threw up his hands in horror. “Haven’t you heard?” he asked. “There has been a great disaster, a flood, people killed!” Since I had just come off a plane I had not heard. Worse was to follow: “So, there are no trains and we do not know when they will be able to run again.”

And indeed, all trains had been cancelled. But TrenItalia did provide a bus, which eventually dropped everyone off outside Livorno Station, much of which was clearly under water. A big thunderstorm overnight had dropped 250mm of rain in the coastal hills in a period of a couple of hours. The resulting flash floods had overwhelmed the local drainage system in some places.

Five of the nine people who died had drowned in their basement flat when a local stormwater canal overtopped and submerged the building in a sea of mud, just down the road from my hotel. I was able to watch the recovery efforts for the next three days as I walked past to the conference venue and to get a sense of what had happened.


The danger, in South Africa, is a similar combination of impunity and unwillingness of authorities to take action when they should.


It is a common story: local drainage systems had not been particularly well maintained. But the killer, quite literally, seems to have been the fact that a large new shopping complex had been opened upstream, surrounded by thousands of square metres of parking. That may well have produced the extra peak of runoff that caused the worst of the damage.

Given this background, I was pleased to see that the City of Joburg and the professional engineers of SAICE got together last month to organise training workshops on implementing the city’s stormwater regulations — even if it is seven years after they were promulgated.

One of the provisions of the regulations is that developers of ‘major projects’ must take particular measures to ensure that the rate of stormwater runoff is no greater after construction than it was before — quite a challenge. But that is the kind of action needed to prevent disasters such as that in Livorno.

Of course, we know that the performance of buildings and drainage systems is only as good as its maintenance. So, we should not forget about the floods in Gauteng a couple of years ago that also drowned a number of people on our highways — the evidence was that blocked drains did not help!

The key issue, though, is that regulations are only as good as compliance. And, as the people of Livorno remarked, we should not take compliance for granted. In many parts of Italy, the Mafia in and out of government decides who complies with what. The danger, in South Africa, is a similar combination of impunity and unwillingness of authorities to take action when they should. Hopefully we are learning, even if it is from our own mistakes as well as those of others.


Click below to read the November 2017 issue of Plumbing Africa

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