Reaching the pinnacle

10 December 2018

ICOLD President Michael Rogers speaks with IWP&DC about his appointment, which he describes as the pinnacle of his professional career.

Congratulations on your election as President of ICOLD. What was your reaction upon hearing about the appointment?

Thank you very much. Upon hearing about it I was very much thunderstruck of achieving this professional goal of mine that I’ve had for many years. The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), including the United States Society on Dams (USSD) have had a very important influence in my professional career, primarily through the many outstanding professionals that I’ve had the honour to meet and collaborate. I have the greatest respect for the past ICOLD Presidents, many of whom have become good friends of mine. To become the next ICOLD President is truly a humbling honour for me and I am very excited about the next three years in this role to share my ideas and hard work for all 100 nations and over 10,000 individual members of ICOLD.

How do you think that your previous experience and expertise will help in your new role?

I think that my experiences for 36 years as a practising civil engineer at Stantec for dams and hydropower projects will give me a deep background of understanding for many of the technical aspects of ICOLD President. Through much of my career I have focused on dam safety, which I recognise as a big challenge to the industry with the ageing infrastructure in many areas of the world.  My expertise and experiences in dam safety, especially the planning, design and construction of dam rehabilitation will help me to work with most of the 27 ICOLD Technical Committees to strengthen those committees and to keep the work of ICOLD relevant to the industry. I have also worked as a project manager for many major dam projects, which required a certain attitude towards collaboration and cooperation in order to work towards success and the greater good.  I trust that my years of training as a collaborator and leader will provide great value as ICOLD president.

What challenges do you think lie ahead for the dams industry over the next five to ten years? And how can ICOLD help pave the way?

I see dam safety as the key challenge facing our industry today resulting from both ageing structures and insufficient levels of quality review for our new projects.  Our dams industry has a long tradition of quality design and construction that has resulted in our major high-risk dams proudly serving the public for decades.  As our industry matures into the modern century, we have looked to better understand the risks of existing and new projects through assessments such as Potential Failure Modes and other risk-based approaches to safety.  Recent dam safety incidents such as the Oroville Spillway serve as a wake-up call to our industry that there are limitations to our current approaches that must be better understood by our industry professionals.

I also think that the dams industry will be challenged to meet the growing demands of our nations for reliable water supply, energy production and flood control benefits from dams and levees as critical infrastructure, while confronted with growing pressure to remove that same infrastructure under the misled guise of sustainability and climate change.  Sustainability and climate change are real concerns that should be moving our nations towards better development of our water resources, including dams and hydropower.

What do you think has been ICOLD’s greatest achievement since the turn of this century?

Having been deeply involved in ICOLD for many years, it is my belief that ICOLD’s greatest achievement from its founding ninety years ago in 1928 has been to bring together the many diverse nations of the world with a singular focus to plan, design and build safe dams (water and tailings) and levees.

ICOLD started as an organisation to encourage the free and unrestricted sharing of knowledge without regard to political, racial or geographic conflicts that are present in the world.  ICOLD stands for the highest quality for dams through the highest level of cooperation and communications between all those individuals and nations who desire to be part of our organisation.  I believe that ICOLD’s greatest achievement since the turn of the 21st Century has been to recognise that the hard-fought efforts of the organisation must be taught and passed on to the next generation of young and diversified engineers.

ICOLD was once an organisation of elder-statesmen of a few industrialised nations.  In recent years, ICOLD has seen many young men and women from around the world - from almost every nation and culture - begin to actively participate in our technical committees; regional and global meetings; and even within their own ICOLD Young Engineer’s Forum.  This is important to the future of ICOLD that these young engineers pick up the mantle of commitment to global cooperation for dam safety as our more senior professionals and their extensive knowledge begins to slowly fade away.

What would you like to achieve during your presidency?

As ICOLD President, I have five major areas where I would like to achieve tangible strengthening of the organisation including:

  • (1) Strengthening ICOLD National Committees, especially those that are struggling either financially or through committed resources.
  • (2) Ensuring that ICOLD supports the strong dam safety commitment from our National Committees, starting from planning, design and construction of new projects through holistic assessments of our ageing dams.
  • (3) Making true strides in capacity building through encouragement of well-developed countries to support those developing nations that could benefit from additional resources.
  • (4) Encouragement to our younger engineers to take the initiative to begin shaping ICOLD into an organisation relevant to Generations X, Y & Z.
  • (5) Improving the business operations of our ICOLD Central Office to provide a sustainable future with a sound financial plan and resources for our organisation.

In the past few years there have been high profile dam safety failures across the world – such as Oroville, Pattel dam in Kenya and Xe-pian Xe Namnoy in Laos. These are all very different events but do you think there are lessons we can learn  from these? And how important do you think it is for ICOLD to be visible and heard in the aftermath of such events?

There have been several high profile dam safety incidents around the world, as well as many more lower profile incidents.  The development and causal characteristics of each of these incidents are different, but have a common thread that the deficiencies that caused these incidents are nothing new to the industry.  The design, construction and required long-term maintenance and monitoring of major dam structures is well known.  I think that it is important for ICOLD as the international parent organisation to allow our national committees to be responsible and address dam safety events, while at the same time offering access to the entire breadth of ICOLD international resources for support.  It is then the role of ICOLD to ensure that the lessons learned from these incidents are shared throughout our profession for understanding and discussions so that the same mistakes that led to the dam safety compromises are not repeated.

It should be recalled that ICOLD is a science society and has no sovereign power on the way dams are built. As an organisation, we fully respect national sovereignty of the individual countries, according to the UN rules. Our role is not to control, but to make recommendations based on our work and to make sure the knowledge is disseminated and transmitted. Thus, it is difficult for ICOLD to have an active communication in the immediate aftermath of those events. For the Oroville Spillway incident, for example, ICOLD held a comprehensive workshop in our Vienna Congress last July where the problem was discussed in detail, but it was more than one year after the event. For the 23 July 2018 accident in Laos, a country which is not member of ICOLD, I immediately made a statement declaring that ICOLD’s experts were ready to help the Lao government in this matter. And during the month of August a group of ICOLD experts, led by ICOLD Honorary President Professor Dr. Anton Schleiss, went to Laos and were received by the Prime Minister, who urged them to work closely with Lao officials to determine the root cause conditions for the collapse of the dam in Attapeu province.

The role of ICOLD is not so much to be visible, because most countries in the world already recognise our relevance on this subject, but to work efficiently for dam safety.

Do you think the dams industry still faces an impending crisis in relation to the numbers of retiring versus young engineers? If so what efforts are still required to help remedy this?

Yes, I think that there is certainly a “Silver Tsunami” of retirement as the large number of professionals in older generations, including myself, approach retirement.  However, I believe that the next generations (Gen X, Y & Z) have the same drive for excellence, knowledge and commitment to our dams profession.  To ensure a good transition between generations, ICOLD simply has to stay true to our original mission to encourage communication and cooperation – not only between nations, but between generations.  I believe that ICOLD has been paying close attention to this responsibility for cross-generation knowledge transfer in our Young Engineers Forum and we will continue to do so.

Are there others areas of the industry or challenges which hold your interest, and which you would like to address during your presidency?

I am interested in maintaining the high level of relevancy and international respect for the quality of ICOLD professionals and publications.  It is important to continue to develop high quality publications, including our marquee bulletins that provide state of the practice guidelines for dams and levees.  To stay relevant, we must continue to be present and supportive to our partners such as the World Bank and others.  

Reflecting on the projects have you worked on over the years can you name any that have really challenged and tested you? Taught you valuable lessons? Or been a great success?

I have been very fortunate to have worked on many iconic projects around the world during my 36-year career at Stantec.  I think that each project challenged me in different ways, from my early years running hydraulic air ramp computer finite element simulations to address cavitation on the Guri Dam spillway, to the recently completed ASCE OPAL award winning San Diego Emergency Storage Project featuring the Olivenhain RCC Dam and the San Vicente Dam Raise project.  But, no doubt my biggest test came last year at the Oroville Spillway incident, which was nine months of fast-track design and construction (and little sleep) to put the spillway of the highest dam in the US back in operation for the next winter flood season.

I learned many valuable lessons of collaborative working with a highly committed, highly talented group of professionals who would simply not allow failure.  I see that first year recovery of the Oroville Spillway incident as my greatest trial and the most rewarding success of my career.  I am excited to take those many lessons of my career at Stantec from Guri to Oroville as I start my next big challenge, which is raising Gross Dam to address water reliability and sustainability in the Denver, Colorado region of the US.

Finally, from a personal and professional point of view, what does it mean to you to be president of ICOLD?

Being ICOLD President is very personal to me as the pinnacle of my professional career.  It means to me that my career contributions to the dams industry and USSD/ICOLD professional societies in particular have been recognised as being worthy to lead our professional society for the next three years.  I take this position and its responsibility very seriously and I am fully committed to making ICOLD stronger for my time as President, especially as I begin my term during ICOLD’s 90th Anniversary year.  This milestone anniversary is a suitable time to reflect and recommit to ICOLD’s mission and values to support all nations for the benefit of all people.

I am also very appreciative to International Water Power & Dam Construction magazine for this opportunity to answer a few questions as I begin my three-year term as ICOLD President.  I appreciate the committed support of this magazine and other similar journals that support the hydropower and dams industry, which I feel is an industry that is generally underappreciated for its significant contributions to major infrastructure that supports a high quality of life for billions of people on this planet.

As we continue to serve these billions of people through our operation of existing structures and supplement with new structures to provide needed water, power and flood control around the globe, we must always remember that we not only serve, but protect people such that safety must always be our highest priority. And, when we fall short of that commitment, we have an obligation to understand the cause; to learn so as we don’t repeat past mistakes; and to openly share lessons and understanding with our colleagues. For it is only with open communication and collaboration to meet the fundamental mission of ICOLD do we honour our proud legacy and ensure our safe future.


Rogers Michael Rogers says that he will honour ICOLD's proud legacy during his three-year presidency

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