Earth Day: Engineering for the Developing World

Although birth rates in developed countries have slowed down dramatically, figures from the United Nations (UN) show that the world’s population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050. What’s more, much of this growth will occur in underdeveloped and developing countries. These countries lack the infrastructure to cope with rapid population growth, meaning they will require personnel with expertise in transportation, water, waste disposal, and construction.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Norwich University’s Online Master in Civil Engineering program.

Norwich University Master of Civil Engineering Online

Population Growth Trends

According to the UN, 48 underdeveloped countries, which have been responsible for much of the world’s population growth, will continue to experience high birth rates in the future. Out of these countries, 27 are in Africa. With almost all of these countries facing serious financial constraints, they are unlikely to implement sustainable development programs that can spur economic growth. To resolve this problem, these countries should consider collaborating with civil engineers that can help them build and expand health systems, alleviate hunger, build education systems, and enhance the accessibility of basic services. Failure to do so will lead to the degradation of key natural resources including water bodies such as lakes, forests, land, rivers, and wildlife. Over time, population pressure could potentially lead to armed conflict between communities fighting over dwindling and scarce resources.

Exporting Engineering Technology to Underdeveloped Regions

Engineering technologies that have been proven in developed nations can easily resolve some of the major problems facing third world countries. These technologies include:

1. Water desalination

Water desalination technology could be used to resolve water scarcity in drought prone countries. Currently, one in every six people in the world lack access to clean drinking water and demand for this precious commodity is expected to grow by 30% through 2030. Even worse, scientists expect this situation to worsen in the future due to changes in weather patterns that environmental scientists have blamed on global warming.

In Africa, Ghana is one of the countries struggling to satisfy the water demands of its citizens. In order to supply its citizens with fresh water, the Ghanaian government has built a $125 million water desalination plant in Accra. The Accra Seawater Desalination plant has the capacity to desalinate 15.9 million gallons of water that is distributed to over 300,000 residents of the Greater Accra administrative region every day.

2. Food security and rural development

Food security is another major challenge that many underdeveloped countries are facing. Unlike in the west where most people live in urban centers, most people in underdeveloped countries live in rural areas. For this reason, it is more prudent to prioritize rural development to lower poverty levels. These countries should also invest heavily in agriculture because it is the main economic driver accounting for 60% of all employment opportunities in these countries. In Rwanda, for example, the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has funded 15 rural development programs. As a result, approximately 534,300 rural households are direct project beneficiaries of these programs. IFAD’s investments generally aim to solve some of major challenges in Rwanda including food and financial security. Examples of community projects financed by the IFAD include ramping up of food production in irrigated areas and hillsides, export crop farming initiatives, livestock development programs, and development of watershed areas. The IFAD has also funded initiatives that promote rural enterprises.

3. Transportation

Another major problem that underdeveloped countries are grappling with is transportation, including building and maintaining functional transport systems. The most effective way of resolving this issue is investing in urban mobility solutions including light rail and underground public transport solutions. However, transport projects should be useful and sustainable over the long term to ease traffic gridlocks on surface roads. Such undertakings also tend to have a ripple effect on the broader economy including easing accessibility of farm produce (mostly from rural areas), boosting the pool of skilled talent, as well as improving access to affordable food. Nigeria is one of the African countries that has benefited from transport-related projects. This is because the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (LIBRD) financed the construction of a bus rapid transport (BRT) system in Lagos with the capacity to handle about 200,000 commuters daily. This transport system, which is the only one of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, has cut daily commute times by 40%.

Upcoming Development Projects

Another project that is bound to boost the prospects of developing and underdeveloped nations is a low-tech and bicycle-based water purification system called Cycloclean. Unlike other devices in this space, the Cycloclean does not require an engine or battery power to operate. This aspect makes it the right tool for addressing the water accessibility challenges facing more than one billion people across the world. The low-tech design approach also means that it can be deployed and used during natural disasters such as flooding. According to the manufacturer, this water purifier requires only one hour to filter enough water for 150 people.

Outside Africa, Nepal has only been able to harness 600 Megawatts of hydroelectric power, which is miniscule considering the country located in the Indian sub-continent has the potential to generate 200,000 MW of hydro-energy. This has forced Nepalese citizens to endure power cuts ranging from 12-18 hours per day. In Africa, universal power distribution is a pipe dream with only 290 million of the continent’s 915 million inhabitants connected to the power grid. Fortunately, Africa has the capacity to generate about 283 Gigawatts of energy. Out of this, African countries have only tapped less than 10% of its total energy potential. Nevertheless, projects that can generate 25 GW of energy are under construction across the continent. By 2040, hydropower will account for 25% of all energy produced in Africa.


The world’s population is projected to increase by more than two billion people through 2050 with most of this growth occurring in underdeveloped countries. This growth will put a lot of pressure on both natural resources such as water and food as well as transportation systems, especially in urban areas. To deal with these challenges effectively, third world countries should partner with civil engineers who can help them achieve food security, ease transport chaos and boost food production.

Posted in Infrastructure | April 19th, 2017 by