World tunnel congress

25 April 2018

The international tunnelling industry will gather in Dubai towards the end of April for the 44th ITA General Assembly and World Tunnel Congress. This should be an interesting one.

While sometimes it seems countries have been awarded the opportunity to host the event with eyebrow-raising frequency, this time is very different. The Society of Engineers UAE (SOE UAE) only became an ITA Member Nation in 2011 upon the creation of its tunnelling chapter. Adding to this the scale and rapidity of tunnelling work seen over the past decade and the UAE became a much-anticipated prospect for the event. WTC 2018 will set a precedent for events in the Gulf, so hopefully it will be a good one.

To the majority of the population, the UAE and its surrounding countries would not seem like obvious candidates for tunnelling. But while it is true that the region is sparsely populated, it is growing rapidly. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are expected to see a population increase of one third, to 53 million people by 2020. This will mostly be concentrated in the existing major cities. This means tunnelling.

But there are other drivers of tunnelling for the UAE in particular. It is no secret that the region has become fabulously rich, for its size, on oil revenues. This cannot last; the Oil Age is ending. A combination of technological improvements and the achingly slow political realisation – a few morons aside – that the exploitation of fossil fuels is not sustainable, will see the world wean itself off the black stuff over the coming century.

Economies dependent on oil need to fi nd their niche. Those blessed with leaders who have more vision than others are hurriedly preparing for what is to come. For the UAE, great effort has been put into making its cities places not just to visit, but to do business, and in the case of Dubai in particular, a hub linking to the rest of the world.

After early road projects and underpasses, tunnelling for sewerage/water supply, and metro work in particular was necessary to allow the construction of a metropolis in a desert, and hopefully allow it to exist long after the oil wealth that created it has been exhausted.

The transformation of the city has been truly incredible. If you haven’t already, I suggest searching the internet for ‘Dubai then and now’ for photos showing the changes the city has undergone in the last 30 years.

So, I hope to see you in Dubai. The congress theme this year is ‘the role of underground space in building future sustainable cities’. It seems well suited.