Six sink-or-swim questions for the modern dam engineer

Technology and expectations are constantly evolving for the dam engineer but the ultimate goal remains the same: safe, lasting dams. Are you fully equipped to make that target a reality?


All industries and jobs change over time, but for dam engineers there has been very significant change on many fronts over the last few decades. Improvements and new developments in technology and construction methods are constantly emerging. Expectations of the role continue to broaden beyond technical skills. And, since the 1970s and 1980s, dam engineers have needed to keep abreast of the surge in legislation, regulations and procedures for modern dam safety programs which emerged in the wake of major dam failures.

Of course, generational change is also always occurring. For organisations that have experienced bubbles and dips in the age distribution of their workforce, this is particularly challenging, and gaps may emerge in particular experience brackets.  As older engineers move towards retirement, they take with them the knowledge of the generation who designed and constructed older dams that may still retain original technology.

The modern dam engineer therefore faces a dual challenge: not only to stay up to date with the latest technology and requirements, but also to maintain an understanding of older equipment and instruments.

For dam owners and managers, success in your business strategy will depend on ensuring that your dam engineers have the right skills and competencies. Investing in workforce planning and training for your people will help you manage risk, deliver your key functions, and move toward your long-term business goals.

To me, the following key factors are essential for the modern dam engineer to keep on top of our fast-changing profession.

1 – Are you keeping up with changing technology for dam engineering and monitoring?

Dam engineering and monitoring technology keeps improving, and the pace of change gets faster all the time. Defensive measures to ensure the safety of dams have improved greatly over recent decades, such as filters for internal erosion protection, and corrosion protection in ground anchors.


Methods for analysing dams have also become more sophisticated with increased computing power and more advanced analysis software, in particular for extreme floods and non-linear analysis for seismic loading. The modern dam engineer also has access to contemporary geotechnical and structural monitoring instruments, which are useful for interpreting the behaviour of a dam.

It is no longer acceptable for a dam safety engineer to rely only on visual inspection and monitoring data. Modern dam engineers need to understand the underlying design philosophy and keep up with the latest construction practices and their impacts on dam behaviour. We also need to maintain an enhanced understanding of the performance of dam structures and appurtenance structures under various load conditions.


In recent years, advanced instruments and automated data acquisition systems have enabled real-time monitoring of dams and near-continuous time history records for the dam engineer to evaluate.

Dealing with this great volume of data can be very time-consuming and beset by a range of challenges, so it is important that the modern dam engineer embraces the best technological advances to streamline the collection, organisation, interpretation and presentation of the data so that it serves its ultimate function: to quickly identify pertinent issues or anomalies.

2 – Are you guided by risks, with a thorough understanding of failure modes?

The modern dam safety engineer needs a thorough understanding of dam safety risks and assessment practices. Risk assessment now defines the dam surveillance scope and program, and failure modes analysis forms the foundation of a risk-based dam safety and surveillance program.


When assessing failure modes, the dam engineer needs to work alongside geologists and construction engineers to understand the impact of construction and to identify features that are not readily visible through visual inspections but could affect the safety of a dam.

3 – Do you consider and understand the impacts of environmental changes?

For dam engineers, consideration of environmental factors is nothing new. However, the potential for changes in weather patterns, and the consequences of these changes, are increasingly important concerns for the modern dam engineer.

In an era in which the climate is changing, dam engineers now need to, for example, consider changes in the size and frequency of rare flood events when evaluating the required spillway capacity, or investigate the adverse impacts on embankment dams during long periods of low rainfall, which could cause desiccation and cracking of the clay material.

4 – How do you prioritise activities within constrained budgets?

Some large dams are now more than 50 years old and are in disrepair or inadequately monitored. However, the limited budgets of public and private sector dam owners can constrain their ability to fund comprehensive surveillance programs and dam remediation works.

This places increasing pressure on the modern dam safety engineer, who should recommend a prioritised program of risk-reduction work within the context of the owner’s financial constraints, to ensure that risks are adequately managed.

5 – Can you engage effectively with the dam’s community and stakeholders?

Dam engineers are increasingly required to consider the safety of dams in the context of the community’s cultural and heritage interests. Community scrutiny of the safety of a dam, or of planned works to improve safety, continues to increase.

With the advent of social media, public scrutiny is now immediate, constant and global. This is a challenge for modern dam engineers, who are not often trained in community engagement.

6 – How safe are your practices?

Over the past two decades, workplace health and safety requirements have had a significant impact on dam engineering. Although not a new responsibility, the regulatory requirements to ensure safe construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning have increased, requiring modern dam engineers to be aware of legal requirements and safety standards beyond their core skills.

In a world in which the availability and uses of water are increasingly in demand and under strain, we need safe, reliable, enduring dams. Investing in the skills and competencies of modern, professional dam engineers is a critical step towards achieving that goal.

If you would like to talk further about developing your dam engineers, or filling gaps in your own expertise, contact Marius Jonker on +61 428 396 080,  Phillip Ellerton on +61 439 010 172 or Dale Bryce on +61 409 984 447.


November 1, 2017