Undergraduate understanding

15 October 2001

The decision to take up a career in the hydro power industry can lead to a very challenging but rewarding future. Paul Christen Røhr reveals why

I have decided to spend my future career in the hydro power industry. As I live in Norway, a county where more than 99% of power demand is met by hydroelectricity, you might think that this is the norm – but it is not necessarily so.

I originally finished my civil engineering degree at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (now the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU) in the early 1990s. I specialised in hydrology and river hydraulics, and did a diploma thesis related to culvert design on the hill slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. My ultimate desire was to work internationally.

After finishing my thesis, I had several job interviews with companies in the Norwegian consulting industry. There was the potential to work worldwide, with prospective tasks in both Vietnam and Costa Rica on the horizon. However, after three years, the most remote and exotic location I visited was a small village some 40km from Oslo, the capital of Norway.

Late in 1997, I had the opportunity of doing a Doctorate of Engineering at NTNU in the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering. The doctorate was related to water management in Pangani river basin in Tanzania, where a multi-disciplinary co-operation is being undertaken between the University of Dar es Salaam and NTNU. It involves researchers within biology, geography and hydrology focusing on changes in land use and how this affects hydrology in the downstream watershed. Scarce water resources, with hydro power downstream and extensive irrigated agriculture upstream, are a basis for conflict.

Financed by the Norwegian Agency for Development, foundations for this work were laid by the Pangani Falls redevelopment project which was completed in the mid 1990s.

International perspectives

So, after several years of working in the consulting industry, I decided to quit my job and go back to university. My decision was influenced by my desire to work internationally, preferably within hydro power and water related areas.

A doctorate at NTNU usually takes about four years, including one year of compulsory duties (eg teaching undergraduate students), one year of course work, with two years working full time on a thesis. I started the doctorate course in 1998 and hope to finish next spring.

Before starting my studies I gained international experience with a preliminary visit to Tanzania: the first of many visits during the doctoral study. My first trip enabled me to learn about the area in the southern hillside of Mt Kiliman-jaro. Subsequent fieldwork visits involved establishing and maintaining gauging stations in the hillside of the mountain, and collecting meteorological data from numerous sources and observations in the field.

These field visits were very informative and challenging. From a safe, guided working environment in Norway, I was now training local people in the Tanzanian countryside, helping them to perform tasks they had never done before – through an interpreter.

Technical aspects of the work were not the only challenge. Cultural awareness became a large part of the learning curve for me. Although we are teaching local people, we are still only visitors in their country. Coming from Western Europe, my everyday problems are somewhat different to a mud hut owner on the Masai Steppe of Tanzania.

With the combined responsibility for the project and acting as a ‘local project bank’, it is also necessary to be foresighted and careful when planning and monitoring progress of the tasks in hand.

These visits and the challenges in Tanzania have been the highlights of the past four years of studying. It has given me an insight into a different region of the world.

Good experience

I believe such experience will be a good foundation for working on international hydro power and water management related projects – which is where I hope my future lies. However, a challenging alternative could involve a longer stay in a developing country, providing hands on assistance for local people. Although my doctoral project did not focus directly on this, I have spoken with local partners on the subject. Training in very basic skills might be as valuable, or even more valuable, than large projects involving multi-million dollar investment in advanced equipment.

I feel that more often than not a lot of time is spent deciding which expensive equipment to buy, with a rather short and intensive training period, before all supervising staff are withdrawn. Slightly less investment in equipment and a more thorough focus on training and follow up could prove to be more beneficial.

A parallel can be drawn to our own computerised, daily life. Your computer has ‘crashed’ and your screen is blank. After just punching a couple of buttons, your computer engineer has everything working again. Much of the technology transferred to developing countries, not necessarily very high-tech solutions, may have some of the same characteristics. Small errors and mistakes can result in blank screens and paralysis of equipment due to lack of experience.

Our daily experiences with technology in the western world are not shared by all countries. Maybe this form of technology transfer and human interaction can attract younger people into the hydro power and water resources industry?

Past problems with recruitment to the natural sciences at comprehensive schools in the western world have resulted in a decreased number of undergraduate applicants, particularly for traditional engineering sciences like civil and mechanical engineering. I don’t think that younger generations want to spend years training to gain experience in traditional engineering sciences for what could be a risky, unknown future.

In years to come this may well be a major problem for the western world, and could involve hiring labour from today’s developing countries. In 25 years it may not be the Norwegian, French or Canadians who send experts to a developing country for supervising construction of a new hydro power plant. It may well be experts from today’s developing countries.

Managing water resources

Managing water resources has become an issue which has had to be addressed in many areas of the world. Planning and development in this context can be very challenging. Technical problems are usually the easiest to solve, but tackling environmental issues and public opinion related to the development and use of water resources have often taken engineers by surprise.

Solving this challenge has created the need for another type of engineer with both the professional skills and understanding of how to meet technical and non technical demands. The industry has to update old stereotypical views that engineers simply ‘mechanise’ everything in their path – born out of their strong desire to solve technical problems in modern society.

Many engineers find there is a conflict between strong public requests for clean air (no thermal power), conservation of nature and rivers (no hydro power), and maintaining modern society’s many power demanding amenities.

With such future problems and challenges, one could begin to question why people want to follow a career in this difficult, insecure and diverse business. Yes, it is true that you face many challenges when putting your future into the hydro industry, but it can also be very rewarding to solve some of the problems.

Gone are the days when the dream was to have an office desk in a huge company, solving technical questions without consideration for non-technical issues. To attract today’s youth into the industry, we have to highlight the attractive side of our work.

There is much to be said about the opportunity to work internationally, interacting with local people and increasing their capabilities of developing their own society. This is very challenging. My own experiences have developed a desire for more.


Would you like to share your insight of the water power and dam construction industry with other readers? Do you have strong views on certain subjects that you would like to publicise? If so, the Editor is interested in hearing from you. Email your ideas to waterpower@wilmington.co.uk

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