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‘Underground space holds key to ever-growing cities’

By Chinedum Uwagbulam
20 February 2017   |   4:51 am
The British Tunnelling Society (BTS), an associated society of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has been in existence since 1971, now we have Tunnelling Association Nigeria (TAN).

Abidemi Agwor, Chairman, Tunnelling Association of Nigeria

ABIDEMI AGWOR is Chairman, Tunnelling Association of Nigeria, currently advocating the development of tunnelling and underground space infrastructure in the emerging cities of sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria. In this interview with Property & Environment Editor, CHINEDUM UWAEGBULAM, he throws more light on the tunnel technology and how Nigeria can grow underground infrastructure

The British Tunnelling Society (BTS), an associated society of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has been in existence since 1971, now we have Tunnelling Association Nigeria (TAN). Why do think we need such gatherings of professionals in this country?
The idea of establishing the Tunnelling Association Nigeria was first conceived in the United Kingdom, shortly after securing an International Scholarship in 2008 from the Rivers State Government. The association was then consequently incorporated in 2016 (registered as the Association of Tunnelling Operators Nigeria) after a period of consultation with strategic partners in the international Tunnelling community; the vision was quite clear from the beginning and this was to establish a platform for the conceptualisation and development of underground-related infrastructure in Nigeria. I believe you will agree with me that you can’t achieve much in isolation, but you can do significantly much in the right partnership. It was expedient to form such a body seeing that there was no existing body or organisation charting this course. Establishing the organisation gives us that unique platform to influence the development of tunnelling and underground infrastructure in the country.

Globally, tunnel construction has been increasing over the last few years, with a range of major projects currently underway in the UK and other countries, why do investors ignore such projects in Nigeria? Can the association trigger investment in that area?
You are absolutely right, we have seen an upward trend in the number of tunnelling and underground space related projects globally particularly in Asia and the Middle East. The Cross rail Tunnels in the United Kingdom, which is currently being fitted out was at the time the biggest infrastructural development in Europe. I wouldn’t say that investors ignore such projects in Nigeria; a lot goes into the delivery of a high profile project especially those with the perceived sophistication of the underground. The life cycle of bringing a high profile underground infrastructure from conception through to delivery will require a meticulously managed integrated operational system. It’s more a case of building local confidence in the process, which will attract external confidence, which obviously comes with external investment.

We would have to demonstrate a certain level of awareness, government and private sector collaboration, a high level of compliance to international standards that apply to the development of underground infrastructure, which I believe can be achieved through a well-structured industry specific developmental plan that will see us develop the seemingly less complicated tunnels and underground related infrastructure to the more sophisticated ones. The main objective of setting up the TAN is to create that platform that will see us effectively develop the specialised skills to grow the industry.

Looking at Nigeria busy city centres, can tunnel construction provide a conduit or space for mass transit system and help in achieving the abandoned metroline project in Lagos? How can that be done?
If we were talking art, I would say Lagos is the perfect canvas for an artist to express the gifting it possess. The need to explore the underground option arises from the need to increase the capacities of our ever-growing cities especially our city centres to accommodate the pressures that accompany inbound migration. What makes tunnelling and underground infrastructural development relevant to delivering projects like the proposed Lagos metro line is the ability to effectively create useful space below ground level with minimal disruption to existing surface activities. It is great that we are considering the development of a metro line in Lagos and it definitely excites me. But we need to understand that developing mega infrastructure is serious business and should be taken as such: The cost benefit of such underground infrastructure should be determined over their life span which usually exceeds a century. The development of the Lagos metro line should be seen as a national project, which will require the involvement of not just the Federal Government and Lagos State government. The government would need to set up a specific organisation or body to develop a concept, plan the procurement and delivery packages and deliver the project, backing it with the required powers to deliver. Government will have oversight functions but it definitely should be driven by the private sector.

Engineering practice of tunnel construction is very new to us in Nigeria, how does it work? Do we have the expertise to grow the technology?
Although it is new to us, it’s not entirely alien to us either. I will try and capture the main processes required. Typically a need is identified and it will usually have a location or route associated with it. A concept is then developed and subsequently a Geotechnical Baseline Report (GBR), which defines and highlights the entire ground characteristic and conditions that will potentially be encountered in the process of construction. Now, I cannot emphasise enough how critical an extensive ground investigation is to the whole process as it also guides other construction related decisions like employing a conventional or mechanised approach, need for pre-construction ground treatment for areas with high water tables, un-cohesive soil and many other factors that pose risks to the successful delivery of the project.

Once this has been established, I would say the other aspects like proposing types of equipment, realistic programme, project cost will be relatively straight forward. The benefits of developing our underground space will without doubt add significant value to our quality of life. It allows us maximise the use of a square foot of space, whatever its application it will definitely positively affect our daily lives. We are talking about things like integrated water and sewage systems for our cities, rail and vehicular transportation, utilities, flood control to say the least. Global demand for tunnelling expertise is in constant high demand resulting in a global skills shortage. The case is not particularly encouraging in Nigeria either, as we cannot boast of a handful of skilled personnel in the industry. The development of local knowledge is part of our key objectives at TAN, hence our partnership with several key higher institutions in the country. International tunnelling and underground organisations have identified this and as a result set up young member’s forum for their respective organisations to aid the development of their local talents. Having said that, I believe we have existing transferable skills from the oil and gas industry as well as the construction industry that can be developed to suit the requirements of the tunnelling industry.

What has been your experience and contribution under the British Tunnelling Society? What is your background ?
The British Tunnelling Society has been the bedrock upon which my career in the tunnelling and underground Space industry was built. I was a project ambassador on the Crossrail Tunnels UK project. In that project, I promoted the concept of tunnelling and underground space development in higher institutions in the UK and I delivered several seminars whilst I did that. I have a combined technical background in geology, civil engineering, and tunnelling and underground space management. I have been involved in the delivery of some high profile projects notably: the construction of three level basement parking adjacent the River Thames, the construction of 21 kilometres of Crossrail Tunnels, London Underground Tunnel Upgrades and currently, the construction of the HinKley point Nuclear power plant UK, which requires a closed circuit cooling water tunnel.

The economy recession has greatly affected the construction industry, what are the prospects of tunnel infrastructure at this period?
I would like to see the current economic situation in the country as an opportunity to evolve. We are not the only country that has gone into recession and I am not sure we would be the last. Most developed countries that contended with the global recession had to inject significant amount of money into developing their infrastructure as a way of quantitatively easing the economic burdens. I appreciate that the circumstances we have in Nigeria vary significantly as our value chain is not as matured as in most of the developed countries.

What financial options or concept can a federal or state government adopt in the development of a tunnel or an underground space?
In terms of funding the development of an underground infrastructure, there are a couple of financial models out there (Direct funding, PPP, PFI) but like I said earlier the bases of attracting investment is saddled on our ability to develop the less complex part of the industry and grow it.

What has been your relationship with all tiers of government and professional bodies in the built environment? What is the association plans for Nigeria?
The association is not just an engineering based organisation but is keen on collaborating with professional whose skills can explored planning, designing, delivery, funding as well as policy makers and legal practitioners, generally anyone that can add value to the process. The responses from the different tiers of government have been mixed, although we have had encouraging support from some of the existing professional bodies. We have embarked on courtesy calls and are scheduled to attend some more.