Project Management Institute

Pipe Dreams

Money Is Pouring Into Sewer System Upgrade Projects

Call in the infrastructure plumber. In Mexico City, Mexico, the failures of the Grand Canal sewer system have caused permanent flooding, creating a stench that stretches for miles on a hot day. And hundreds of cities in China face flood risks with every rainfall due to outdated drainage systems that haven't kept pace with urban growth.

Some cities have embarked on major upgrade projects. For instance, Singapore is in phase two of a US$7.3 billion sewage system project spanning more than two decades, while in London, England the seven-year, £4.2 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel project is underway. Meanwhile, Dubai, United Arab Emirates is set to break ground on a US$8 billion, six-year sewage upgrade project.

But wastewater upgrade and replacement projects are among the biggest and most complex infrastructure developments cities undertake. Systems are often deep underground, buried beneath layers of other infrastructure—roads, pipes, telecom lines, subways and more. These upgrades are also disruptive for public stakeholders, too—requiring project teams to collect permits for ensuing construction and traffic delays.

“Repairing or replacing systems is unbelievably challenging from a project management standpoint,” says George Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, Washington, D.C., USA. “In most cities, these systems are big, deep and difficult to fix. But it has to be done.”

There are three main challenges facing big sewage system projects: securing funding, finding talent and getting access to land, says William Yong, managing director, Southeast Asia water business, Black & Veatch, Singapore. The land issue is especially difficult in overcrowded urban environments. “Major cities like Jakarta, [Indonesia,] Manila [Philippines] and Singapore have huge populations, so securing land and permits for projects is a major issue,” Mr. Yong says. Black & Veatch is managing phase two of Singapore's sewage system project as a joint venture with AECOM. One of the country's largest single infrastructure projects, it's slated to be completed in 2024.

Geoffrey Piggott, project director, deep tunnel sewage system phase two, Black & Veatch, Singapore, has worked with more than 16 public agencies to get permits, gain rights of way, secure road closures and conduct environmental studies. “The approval process is well-established and efficient in Singapore,” Mr. Piggott says. “But it is onerous and needs to be taken into account in the project schedule.”

Adding to the team's challenges: The phase two stretch is just one of many major public infrastructure projects currently underway on the island, forcing the sewage project team to compete for resources. As such, the project contractors will have to draw on labor from India, China and elsewhere, which creates productivity and safety concerns, Mr. Yong notes. “Foreign laborers don't always understand our high safety standards.”

To reduce risks, his team provides education in multiple languages as part of every project plan and requires all contractors to do the same for their teams. “It's important to convey a culture of safety,” he says.

Royal Costs

Funding presents yet another obstacle. China's central government, for instance, has pledged to lay 126,000 kilometers (78,293 miles) of new sewage pipes by 2020. But many Chinese cities are unable to fully fund projects, so they're turning to public-private partnerships and nongovernmental organizations to fill the gaps.

Even when these projects are fully funded, they can generate stakeholder challenges. For example, the Thames Tideway team has to deal with public second-guessing of the need for the project, which involves digging a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) tunnel under the Thames River to eliminate overflows from the city's 150-year-old system. A mix of private investment, increased utility fees and taxpayer money will fund the project.

Rendering of Thames Tideway Tunnel cross-section



Its original assessor said that the decision to pursue the project was based on faulty information. “In broad terms, I think it is a waste of about £4 billion,” Chris Binnie, the original assessor and 2005 steering group chairman that recommended the project, told The Guardian. “And it is largely the [utility's] customers that will pick up the bill. ... [In the future] we need to be a lot more careful about the information on which these types of projects are assessed and make sure you really do have to construct it.”

Clean Sweep

Remote monitoring technologies can help ensure organizations tackle the right projects at the right time. Mr. Hawkins’ team uses sonar, drones and tiny sewer “boats” to remotely survey the sewer system of Washington, D.C. It uses that data to assess risk and prioritize annual maintenance projects. “Using technology is easier, cheaper and less disruptive than doing visual inspections,” he says.

While there is no avoiding the disruption of building these systems in the first place, using technology to remotely monitor developments can ensure greater benefits realization. “With good project planning, you can minimize disruption above ground, while keeping a strong system below.” —Sarah Fister Gale


“In most cities, these systems are big, deep and difficult to fix. But it has to be done.”

—George Hawkins, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, Washington, D.C., USA

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